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Now that I’ve said my peace, let’s look at how these terrible, useless handbags became de rigeur at fancy dress occasions.
Throughout the 19th century, there was no need for purses at all. Women’s clothing was generally made up of so much fabric that it was easy to insert a pocket or two in which women could hold their valuables. However, by the late 19th and early 20th century, some of the smaller skirts meant that women used bags more often. For longer journeys, women would use carrier bags (like a modern day suitcase), or, if their dresses couldn’t accommodate pockets, a reticule (imagine a very large coin purse that loops over your arm or wrist.) In many cases, women would fashion these themselves. There were some exceptions. For instance, there were, "Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit… all in sight and all easy to find, even for the wearer."
Suffragettes had the right idea on a great many things.
But between pockets and reticules, women seemed to have their belongings under control. At least they did until the 1920’s, when dresses became even less voluminous. Slinky silk gowns or short flapper outfits couldn’t accommodate pockets as seamlessly as their predecessors. In that case you might think that women would have just used their reticules, but, as FIT professor Ellen Goldstein-Lynch explained, "Nobody wanted anything off of their shoulder or arm because it took away from the silhouette of the clothing." This meant that some socialites would take to stuffing all their belongings into, for instance, cigarette cases, which did not look all that great. So a new accessory that looked like it was tailored to the outfit was desired.
Thus the clutch was born.
Clutches were intended to add to, rather than detract from, the look of an overall outfit, rather the way jewelry does. That meant that instead of having one handbag that was meant to go with everything, women would want clutches to match the gown or cocktail dress they’d be wearing. It didn’t take too long for manufacturers to realize that, if these purses were marketed like jewelry, they could charge a ton for them.
Within the next decade, the jeweler Van Clef & Arpels began producing Minaudières™. The tiny treasure boxes would be studded with gems and made out of costly materials like lacquer, bakelite and metal. Before long Tiffany & Co and Cartier had begun making similar styles. They were beautiful, and they were also much too expensive for the average woman.
So, for a brief period, clutches were a status symbol for the very wealthy.
But not for all that long. If you note "but lots of clutches are made of leather or cloth, right?" Well, that has a lot to do with World War Two. During that period cloth or small leather clutches became popular with everyday women who were not especially worried about finding a new glamorous — and extremely costly — accessory to match their slinky evening gown. They were just worried about finding a new bag, period. That’s because rationing meant that fewer goods like leather were available to make new purses at all. As a result purses had to become smaller, and clutches became a popular everyday design. Designers even began improvising with unusual materials — for instance, in the 1940’s, Gucci figured out how to bend bamboo into bag handles, so they wouldn’t need to use metal which was necessary for the war effort.
And then, virtually as soon as the war ended, people got back to covering clutches all over with pearls again. Which is kind of a shame. Given the voluminous nature of the New Look skirts that Christian Dior popularized, that would have been a great time to start adding some pockets back into women’s dresses.
We could have had it all, and we opted for teeny tiny purses covered in fake or real pearls that could maybe hold your lipstick.
Curse the world.
A lot more whimsy got integrated into clutch design during the 1960’s, which allowed them to be both accessible for the common woman and, if not quite as glamorous, at least as glittery as they were in the 1930’s. New shiny synthetic fabrics were used to produce them en masse. By the 1970’s, Judith Lieber popularized the idea of covering a clutch entirely in rhinestones. Those rhinestone bags remained immensely popular through the 80’s, 90’s and approximately until Carrie Bradshaw responded to Mr. Big’s gift of a Judith Lieber bag with abject horror in the 2000s. Interestingly, that design was born because the gold plating on one of Lieber’s bags came back from the factory damaged. She used the rhinestones to cover the imperfection. And regardless of what Carrie thought, Lieber’s rhinestone covered bags are still around today, and retail for around $5,000.
If that price makes your mouth drop, well, I won’t even talk about how much Alexander McQueen clutches cost. Okay, yes, I will, it’s almost $4,000 and you definitely can’t fit your iPhone in one. Perhaps now more than ever clutches have taken on their original purpose of being a beautiful, jeweled accessory that signifies only your own wealth.
Just don’t try to cram anything you actually need in there.