For women, purses have served as an expression of status, style and, ultimately, independence throughout history. No purse category illustrates the historical role of this accessory better than the beaded handbag.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which enabled the mass production of beading supplies that had previously been crafted by hand, the use of beaded handbags exploded in the late 18th century. The beaded handbag telegraphed a woman’s elegance, her curated taste, and flair for the domestic arts to potential suitors.
Between 1820 and 1830, beaded bags supported by metal frames came into vogue. Imported from France and Austria, the frames were made from pinchbeck, an alloy of cooper and zinc made to look like gold and tortoiseshell. Chains, often formed of decorative, ornate links, were attached to the frames. In the late 1800s glass beads were seen frequently on reticules, purses with drawstrings, and chatelaine handbags, which would hook onto a woman's sash or belt.
“So popular was the reticule, it became an absolute ‘must’ for fashionable ladies in 19th century Europe where the Empress Josephine, internationally known for her sense of fashion, carried a reticule with her at all times. Romantic figures, pastoral scenes, and flora and fauna became common themes rendered in the tiniest of beads,” writes Sandy Levins in “The Little Beaded Bag: History’s Favorite Fashion Accessory.
These beaded works became so coveted, the patterns used to create them were jealously guarded as family heirlooms passed from one generation to the next.
The demand for beaded purses surged in America during the 1920s with an attendant explosion in artistic styles, including Art Deco, floral, geometric, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau. The genesis of the beaded fringe took root during the Roaring ‘20s. The early 20th century also gave rise to Native American beaded bags as a fashion statement. These bags, according to Levins, were usually made of simple chamois and decorated with brightly colored beads. Companies such as McCall's offered iron-on transfer patterns of original American Indian design.
Celebrities, trendsetters, and every flavor of fashionista in between, continue to embellish their look with beaded bags. While the patterns may be simpler than those of their predecessors, internationally famous designers like Judith Lieber, Prada and Badgley Mischka now commission beaded bags that sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Apiaria.com features the stunning and intricately beaded handbags by the designer Mary Frances.
Whether you're looking to add pizzazz to your little black dress look or tweak a monochromatic wardrobe with vibrant accessories, beaded handbags can tell your personal fashion story in the most beautiful and artistic way.
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