The Kelly: History of a Classic Handbag

Date: 01/19/2024

As I always say, buying a high-quality handbag is a big, yet worthwhile, investment. So many handbags created over the past 50 years have not only held their value, but also have gone up in value. That’s because handbag lovers like you and me know just how timeless a well-crafted handbag can be–and how useful. No matter what I’m wearing, a handbag always finalizes even the most low-key look.

“Curating a handbag collection is very much like curating an art collection.”

– Rachel Koffsky, Christie’s

As a longtime buyer, I’ve had many of my handbags for over a decade, and they look just as good as new. As I watch their value rise, and continue to enjoy their ‘company’ on my arm, I am also keen to help the next generation of handbag ‘investors’ start their own collections. That’s why today I want to provide a little personal insight on the different kinds of Kelly Bag you can buy from Hermès, and the specific things to look for and think about as you’re making your buying decisions. Then, you can use what you’ve learned to purchase the Kelly of your dreams!

History of The Kelly Handbag

In an article I wrote about what I think are the 5 most iconic handbags of all time, I include the Kelly Bag number one on the list.

This is not only because I find the handbag to be absolutely gorgeous – and deeply reflective of my own personal style – it’s also because the Kelly Bag has a fascinating history that has elevated the bag to its popular status today. 

For instance, did you know the Kelly Bag was not always known by that name? First, it was released as a simple leather handbag by Hermès called the Sac à dépêches. This 1928 design, originating from an even earlier design from 1892) was modified from a design meant for holding a saddle or boots – since at the time Hermès was known for their focus on riding accessories alone – to a design meant for carrying important papers and news. This is probably why the design was first popular with male poets and politicians, including John F. Kennedy and the Duke of Windsor! 

Long after its original design however, when Grace Kelly found herself on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, To Catch a Thief, surrounded by the incredible Hermès accessories purchased by the movie’s costume designer, it is said that Kelly purchased several of that specific handbag for herself right then and there!

Most of you know that Kelly was a rising star among young women, and so it was that early handbag lovers of the 70s were primed to love the bag’s design. Then, when Kelly became the princess of Monaco and rose ever further to stardom, she was famously photographed hiding her first pregnancy using the iconic handbag as a ‘shield’ from paparazzi. When the news was finally revealed, the press went wild, and so did her fans; so much so that by 1977, the bag became known as The Kelly–and everyone wanted one for themselves!

What’s the difference between Hermès Kelly & Birkin Bags?

With a more simplistic design, the Kelly Bag was already in vogue when in the 80s, Jane Birkin found herself sitting next to the CEO of Hermès at the time, Jean-Louis Dumas. Minding her own business, she started rifling through her bag to look for something, only to have the contents of that bag spill out onto the plane’s floor. As the story goes, Dumas quipped that she should find a bag with pockets, to which she replied that “the day Hermès makes one with pockets, I will have that.” 

So begins the biggest difference between the Kelly Bag and the Birkin Bag designs, the size of the pockets! While the Birkin is larger with a ton of pocketed ‘slots’ to separate bag items, the Kelly is much smaller and slimmer, with less room in the interior pockets–making for a sleek, simple overall look. 

But what else makes the two bags different? Well, for one, they have different hardware enclosures on the exterior – the Kelly has one clasp and the Birkin has three. As well, the Birkin has two handles for the bag, while the Kelly only has one, and comes with a cross-body strap to keep the bag handsfree.

Quite a few reputable fashion outlets also talk about how the Birkin is considered a more casual, everyday bag, whereas the Kelly is meant for special occasions, when you need a more minimal bag option.

The Kelly: One-of-a-Kind Design

Now that you know what made The Kelly reach its ultra-popular status, it’s time to get up-close and personal with this handbag’s design. What is it that makes a Kelly, The Kelly?

Well the first thing to note is that The Kelly isn’t just a rectangle or square bag—it comes in the shape of a trapezoid to draw the eye from top to bottom. Each Kelly has one top handle, but comes in two different styles: the Sellier and the Retourne. 

  • Kelly Retourne. Rounded, unstructured style with relaxed edges and a ‘boho’ look. Piping is visible on this design, but due to it’s flexibility, it makes a better travel bag than the Sellier. 
  • Kelly Sellier. Boxy, structured style with rigid, sharp, and inflexible corners, a complex construction, and top-stitched seams. There is no visible piping on this bag.

With these two ‘types’ in mind, know that both styles of Kelly bag have their own subset of features to consider, including a small lock, the clasp (called a plaque), a dangling tassle (called a clochette), a detachable shoulder strap, and ‘buttons’ on the underside of the bag to protect its delicate bottom.  

Just because there are two main types of Kelly bag, however, doesn’t mean that you’ll often find two Kelly bags that look alike. That’s because – aside from different Kelly sizes (list included below) – The Kelly has undergone a variety of updates and redesigns through the ages. 

Here’s the sizing list for the Kelly, and then let’s get into the different Kelly subtypes that you can get your hands on…if you don’t already!


‘Mini’ Kelly Sizes – Kelly 15, 20, and 25
Everyday Kelly Sizes – Kelly 28, 32, and 35
Travel Kellys – Kelly 40 and 50


Iconic Kelly Styles

Throughout the years, Hermès has maintained a solid schedule of redesign. Certainly, the bag has seen more updates than there are seasons of Grey’s Anatomy! 

Knowing now that there are a few iconic design choices that go with every Kelly bag, here is a quick list of the different iterations of The Kelly that you can seek out online or in-store. 

Make sure to click-through each listing (or type the name into a fresh Google search) to discover your personal favorites, and to find out which type most matches your unique style.

  • Kelly Cut. This is a reimagined clutch-style version of the classic Kelly Bag.
  • Kelly Lounge. No longer for direct sale, must be purchased on resale market.
  • Kelly Danse. A Kelly Bag with a casual twist. 
  • Picnic Kelly. A great companion for day-time excursions.
  • Kelly Mini. A miniature version of the classic Kelly Bag
  • Kelly Pochette. Smaller, rectangular Kelly.
  • So Kelly. Hobo-style satchel.
  • Kelly Ado. Slouchy, square version of the Kelly.
  • Kelly To Go. Wallet-sized Kelly with a strap for crossbody.
  • Kelly Dépêches Briefcase. Simple, portfolio-style bag for work.


The Kelly Materials & Colors

Did you know there are about 250 different colors that have been released from Hermès when it comes to their handbags? But that doesn’t mean you can get all those colors when you’re buying your own Kelly! This is yet another reason why the bag is so sought after—since some colors are rarer than others. That’s what makes them such a fun collector’s item for bag-lovers like me. You’ll always see tons of fun options on the resale market, and if you haven’t already, you’ll notice that some of the colors on the list I shared above are considered more valuable than others. So if this is something you’re interested in learning more about, then I suggest you check out this article, which recommends color options like the 5P Bubblegum Pink, Rose Sakura, Bleu Brume, Noir, or Craie. According to the article, the most valuable color of all is Tan, which is the color that first made the Kelly bag famous! I, myself, opt for the brightest, boldest color combinations for my Kelly Bags, but have a few neutrals to suit a subtler vibe on occasion. I also have at least one Kelly for each of the hardware style options available.

For example, where the hardware options for the Kelly Bag are concerned, there are two main materials used: 18-karat or 24-karat gold-plated, and palladium plated. That said, you might find other bags with special hardware options ranging from rose gold, to permabrass, to guilloche or even PVC hardware! This article in particular says the rarest of all hardware types is the diamond-encrusted 18-karat white gold hardware–but this only comes on bags constructed from crocodile skin—I’m sorry to say I don’t have that one yet! 

HINT: When you’re buying on the resale market, make sure to get the hardware checked if you’re going with gold or silver. You wouldn’t want to take home a used Kelly, only to find that the hardware has been changed! 

Speaking of skin, each Kelly can be bought with a multitude of skin options, though again, some colors are only available in certain skins. Keep in mind as well that each leather or skin will have its own unique ‘style’ and will require different kinds of maintenance to avoid potential repairs. For instance, if you want a more durable bag that you can set on the ground while you play ball with your kids or dog, I suggest a textured leather like Togo, which is textured to protect from unsightly scratches

If you’re feeling more exotic however, you can always try and seek out Kelly Bags in crocodile, alligator, snake, ostrich, or lizard–but these bags require a ton more maintenance and upkeep than your average leather. Plus, they are not made for a casual day to the park, but should be kept for special occasions and business meetings where possible! 

Truly the list of material options for your Kelly may seem endless, so I thought I would include a quick list of some of the ‘skin types’ used for the Kelly Bag design. That way you don’t get overwhelmed!

  • Hermès Box Calf Leather. A heritage leather used in many Hermès originals. 
  • Hermès Buffalo Sindhu Leather.
  • Hermès Clemence Leather. Soft, heavy, but less durable cowhide. 
  • Hermès Chevre Mysore Leather.
  • Hermès Crocodile Niloticus Matte Skin.
  • Hermès Epsom Leather. An embossed, rigid, yet durable leather.
  • Hermès Ostrich Leather Skin. Cheapest price point and the most durable of all leather options.
  • Hermès Natural Lizard Leather. Usually only used for smaller Kelly Bags.

Why I Love Kelly, and Why I Want More!

To me, it’s such a deeply exciting experience to get a new Kelly Bag knowing that it isn’t just a ‘pretty thing’ but a proper investment worthy of my time, patience, and care. Some people might like trading in the stock market…but I like trading in bags! 

Not to mention, while these handbags keep accruing value as the years pass, you get to have an Hermès staple hanging off your arm–and I don’t know about you, but wearing and carrying a Kelly Bag by my side certainly adds a real spring to my step! 

So what Kelly Bag (or otherwise) do you buy to get the same feeling? Do you already own your favorite style, or are you looking to get a new one for your collection? Whatever the case may be, I hope this quick history and style guide give you all you need to be a Kelly Bag connoisseur! 

Better yet, if you’re a Kelly enthusiast like me, I would love to see which Kelly Bags you have. Feel free to comment below sharing your Kelly swag, or to reach out through my Instagram so we can chat more about the handbag we both love! If you’re really keen, you can even scroll through my feed to watch out for the #hermeskelly tag to see which bags I’ve purchased in the past. 

Can’t wait to hear from you, and to see you rocking your latest Kelly.

Until next time, with all my love,