Now & Then: The ‘It-Bag’

In the late 1990s, the Fendi Baguette bag started a fashion frenzy.

Part of documenting fashion is acknowledging the desire and anxiety certain items induce. If ever there was an object designed to seduce us, it was the “It-bag.” As the original “It” girl, Clara Bow demonstrated at the beginning of the 20th century, the quality of “It” is both absolute attraction and elusiveness. If that sounds like a euphemism for sex appeal, Sigmund Freud – in his work deciphering the language of dreams – considered handbags to represent female genitalia.

To most devotees, these expensive and easily recognizable designer signatures convey a right-time-right-place sense of status that is the source of their appeal. With that in mind, its hardly surprising that the lust for “It-bags” directly corresponds to periods of economic boom. The most recent era of handbag hots began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the average American women reportedly bought more than four statement piece purses annually.

Who could forget the impact of Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her Fendi baguette? Recently reissued to coincide with the launch of a new book Fendi Baguette, the bag – available in over 1,000 versions – quickly started a fashion frenzy. According to the show’s star, Sarah Jessica Parker, Fendi was “the first important design house to loan us items,” and the introduction of the baguette allowed the fashion loving character to develop into the style icon she became. “It really opened the floodgates and influenced the storyline – especially Carrie’s habit of spending more money on fashion than her home.”

In 1956, a photo of Grace Kelly, who had become the new Princess of Monaco, carrying the Hermès Sac à dépêches bag to shield her pregnant belly made the “Kelly” bag hugely popular.

But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. In 1935 Hermès created a top-handled leather bag called a Sac à dépêches as part of their leather goods range. When Princess Grace wanted to cover her baby bump with her Hermès bag – these were the days when star’s pregnancies were not a career boosting media opportunity – the photos were splashed all over the world and made it onto the cover of Life magazine. Hermès quickly renamed it the Kelly bag, and it became hugely popular.

The “Birkin” bag was born when Hermès chief executive was seated next to Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London, he watched as her straw basket overturned spilling its contents onto the floor.

Another Hermès design, the Haut à Courroies was created for free-spirited Jane Birkin. Known for toting a straw basket because she was unable to find a weekend bag large enough to suit her needs. The “Birkin” subsequently became and remains one of the most desirable and widely recognized handbags in the world.

She can’t have heard the “It-bag” trend is over… Victoria Beckham is said to own 100 Hermès Birkin bags thought to be worth more than $2 million.

By 2008 the “It Bag” was no longer in fashion. While there will always be some who can afford bags known eponymously – Birkin, Paddington, Motorcycle and the Alexa  – the rest of us know that the real beauty of fashion is mysterious and deeply personal, our accessory’s determining us individuals rather than part of the crowd.

In 2007 Actress Angelina Jolie, and her daughter Zahara were photographed carrying matching Valentino purses – was this image responsible for the end of the “It-bag” trend?

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of Flared Pants

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of Shorts

Now & Then: Met Ball’s Most Memorable Dresses

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Platform Shoe

Now & Then: The History of Fitness Wear

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of the Cocktail Dress

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.



Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.