Guide to Retro-styled Bags


There's nothing quite like a retro bag to add depth to a modern look.
There's nothing quite like a retro bag to add depth to a modern look.
©iStockphoto.com/princessdlaf

On the runway at Gucci's 2009 Spring-Summer show, models carried a brand new bag. It was big, leather, belted and just a little bit slouchy: the New Jackie.

A new bag that really wasn't new at all.

Gucci's New Jackie is a remake -- an authentic retro handbag based on the iconic 1960s Gucci Jackie handbag, named for Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

In this age of modern It Bags, a retro purse may seem passé. And yet you may own one or two yourself, or be coveting one as we speak. Great handbag styles do tend to come back around, and there's nothing quite like a retro bag to add depth to a modern look.

First, some terminology: For one thing, "retro" is not the same as "vintage."

 

Retro Defined

If you find this same silver clutch at a flea market today, it's vintage. If you find it at Claire's, it's retro.
If you find this same silver clutch at a flea market today, it's vintage. If you find it at Claire's, it's retro.
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

There will always be some debate surrounding the terminology, but basically what we're talking about is:

Vintage -- A handbag made in the style of an era during that era. A bag is vintage if it is from a prior time in fashion, and especially if it is recognizably from that time (meaning it embodies certain styles popular in that period). Your great-grandmother's beaded flapper bag from the 1920s is a vintage piece. A vintage bag is an antique (and could be worth some cash).

Retro -- A handbag made in the style of an era after that era has passed. A bag is retro if it recalls a prior time in fashion. The '70s-style printed hobo bag on the rack in Macys in 2010 is retro, not vintage, and it's only worth the MSRP on the price tag.

You could, in theory, have a vintage retro bag -- say, a Victorian-style beaded pouch crafted in the 1960s.

The bag that graced Gucci's runway was retro. It's new, and it recalls one of the great classics.

And speaking of classics…

Retro Style: Icons

The Hermes Birkin: Whether it's fresh off the waiting list or purchased from an elite estate sale, this bag is a retro icon.
The Hermes Birkin: Whether it's fresh off the waiting list or purchased from an elite estate sale, this bag is a retro icon.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Hermes Kelly and Birkin, Chanel 2.55, Lady Dior and Gucci Jackie bags have a few things in common: They're icons in fashion, they're mostly leather, they're associated with starlets and royalty, and if you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford one.

But you could afford a retro bag designed in the style of one of the legends. This type of bag would be fairly structured, with clean, symmetrical lines. A retro in the Chanel vein would be quilted, with a gold-chain strap. A Birkin or Kelly type would be big, with a dainty belt securing a leather flap closure. Gucci Jackie's retro is medium-size, with a front clasp and a contrast-color center panel. And a retro version of Lady Dior? Cane-patterned quilting, rectangular and a bit blingy: The original has gold letters spelling out "D-I-O-R" dangling from its handles.

(Side note: If you go for a bag that actually has "D-I-O-R" hanging from the handles and it costs $35, it's more "fake" than "retro.")

Besides the high-style yumminess, perhaps the greatest thing about going iconic-retro is the versatility. It's tough to clash with Birkin.

There are other retro looks, however, you may want to take a bit more care with.

Retro Style: Bakelite and Lucite

Bakelite was a popular accessory from the '20s through the '40s.
Bakelite was a popular accessory from the '20s through the '40s.
©iStockphoto.com/azndc

For a retro handbag with some "wow" value, you might look to plastic. In handbags, that typically means either Bakelite or Lucite.

Bakelite accessories were big in the '20s and '30s, and are valuable collector's items from the time. But their popularity continued through the 1940s, when, after World War II, the Western World suffered all sorts of shortages. The fashion industry felt the effects in, among other things, a leather short shortage. Lest fashionable woman carry stuff in their pockets (or last year's bag), designers turned to plastics.

Typically, these plastics made up handles and frames. Sometimes, though, as in the case of Lucite box-shaped purses, they formed the entire bag.

Bakelite, for one, is a valuable plastic and isn't really in production anymore, so if you decide to spend on a retro-style bag with "Bakelite" details, you may want to check with an expert (an antiques or vintage-jewelry dealer, perhaps) to make sure it's real.

Otherwise, just enjoy the stylish novelty of plastic. And be wary of pairing it with other plastic accessories. The novelty might wear off.

The structure of plastics, and refinement of the classics, would eventually give way to an entirely new attitude -- and these retro bags are everywhere right now…

Retro Style: Bohemian

Halle Berry carries a '70s-inspired oversized bag.
Halle Berry carries a '70s-inspired oversized bag.
David Aguilera/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic

When the bras came off, bust lines weren't the only things hangin' loose.

As the '50s gave way to the '60s and the '60s gave way to the '70s, women were changing -- and changing their handbags. The free-wheeling, go-everywhere woman had stuff to carry.

Enter giant, floppy "hobo bags" and cross-body slings with room, lots of room. And not only in leather but also in bright, cotton prints, hand knits and macramé. Today's unstructured hobo bags are throwbacks to the free-spirited fashion of the bohemian '70s (just refrain from pairing your boho bag with bellbottoms, platforms and a head scarf, since matchy-matchy throwbacks can look like a costume).

These retro bags are everywhere right now. You can pick one up for practically nothing or even make your own -- slings are one of the easiest types of bags to DIY.

Another retro style began as something of a Victorian-era DIY.

Retro Style: Beading and Gems

A beaded clutch can add elegance to an otherwise simple outfit.
A beaded clutch can add elegance to an otherwise simple outfit.
David Livingston/Getty Images

During the late 1800s, women started carrying the small handbags that would someday become collectors' items: Intricately beaded pouches that required serious skill. Queen Victoria herself is said to have inspired the trend, and beading became a distinctly feminine and highly valued talent.

The beaded purses we have now are retrospectives on this meticulous art. You'll find them as long-strapped pouches -- popular in flapper area, often further adorned with beaded tassels. Beaded frame purses have been big since the early 1900s, and the jeweled Enid Collins style bags of the '50s, with painted scenes covered in colored gems, take the shiny, picturesque style to a different end.

Beaded purses can be very black-tie, but you can wear them to top off a casual look, too -- jeans, heels and a stunning, beaded purse can be a great look. Go toned-down on your other accessories so they don't compete with your retro centerpiece.

Now, when you go looking for these retro gems…

Retro Shopping

Where there are handbags, there are retro handbags.
Where there are handbags, there are retro handbags.
Howard Grey/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Retro styles are so popular you may not have known they were retro. Department stores, boutiques, eBay, eBags, Claire's, flea markets -- where there are handbags, there are retro handbags.

Prices run the gamut. The most important thing to keep in mind is authenticity. Retro does not mean vintage, an important distinction in a place like a flea market or eBay. Vintage, if it's in good condition (and sometimes even if it's not), is worth a lot. Retro does not have any inherently high value just because it's retro.

If a handbag is billed as expensively vintage, don't take it at face value. There are a lot of fakes out there. Far more than there are authentic collectors' pieces.

If you're going for a retro bag with a famous name, or handmade, or living in an overpriced boutique, expect it to cost you. But know you can pick up a retro bag on the cheap and it doesn't make it any less retro.

It's the style that counts.

For more information on retro handbags, fashion and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • 1950s Vintage Clothes and Accessories: What to Collect. Fashion Era.http://www.fashion-era.com/Vintage_fashion/a11_collecting_fifties_vintage_2.htm#Bakelite%20and%20Lucite%20Bags
  • Handbag Styles and Trends. Become.com Tip Center.http://tips.become.com/handbags/handbag-trends.html
  • Henrietta's Handbag & Purse Patterns.http://www.henriettashandbags.com
  • Vintage Handbags. World Collectors Net.http://www.worldcollectorsnet.com/magazine/issue32/iss32p6.html