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Antique of the Week: Purse Passion Is Always In Season

Simple crocheted purses like these could be made at home by young girls in the 19th century. (Photo Provided)

With the arrival of spring, fashion turns to new purses, shoes and clothing. However, for purse collectors, new (old) bags are always in style.

Antique and vintage purses offer a lovely example of elegance and design. Beaded, cut steel, celluloid and needlework bags are just a few of the categories in yesteryear’s market.

Antique purses are often grouped by construction method, material used or design. The construction method reflects whether the bag is beaded, crocheted or stitched and the material classification includes fabric, metal, ivory and other.

The design classification tells a collector if the purse is a handbag versus shoulder bag versus tiny little chatelaine bags (worn at the waist on an ornamental chain).

That means there are lots of ways for fashion accessory enthusiasts to shape a collection! Today, vintage purses are hot too, with names from the mid-20th century taking the spotlight due to the huge popularity of designers and their logo.

It’s amazing how complex the topic of purses can become. But like all articles of clothing or accessories, purses also represent social history over the ages and are symbols of wealth, status and function. Purses are clues to daily life in years gone by.

Even museums include exhibits on purses and the fashion surrounding them. Purses shown in museums include bags used for everything from carrying letters to gaming purses, used for carrying counters and playing cards.

Purses by famous designers like Schiaparelli, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent are treasures that can actually increase in value if cared for so that they are in pristine condition.

My favorite antique purse brand is Whiting and Davis, which began to create quality metal mesh handbags in 1876. Fashion loves these bags and so do collectors who enjoy the timeless, classic look and beautiful workmanship. Visit whitinganddaviscollection.com to see current styles.

The lovely collectible bags shown in today’s column date from the 1800s to the early 1900s and include beaded, metal and crocheted examples. All are from the personal inventory of a local collector.

According to Schroeder’s Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide, purses from the early 1800s are often decorated with small, colored glass beads. Cut steel beads were popular in the 1840s and remained stylish until about 1930, purses made of woven mesh date back to the 1820s and chain-link mesh came into usage in the 1890s, followed by the enameled mesh bags carried by the flappers of the Roaring ’20s.

Since the 1700s purses have been recognizable as a female accessory and in the 1800s handbags became common, as money took the place of barter.

Interesting names of purses include the miser, a very old style that is self-descriptive; the reticule, another old style of drawstring bag; and the petite chatelaine bag, often created in mesh pewter or silver to attach to the ornamental chain belt of a lady in the days of castles and chateaus.

Purses have been made from an amazing variety of materials, including beads, ivory, tortoise-shell, straw, prickly pear, metals, celluloid and other plastics and of course, many different leathers.

Condition is everything to collectors and affects the value. Designer bags of all sizes sell for hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, when in perfect shape.

For example, French manufacturer Hermes is recognized for its handmade luggage and handbags and commands a hefty price in the collectible market for everything from scarves to bags. Value goes up even further when a handbag is linked to an iconic woman who selects it, as in the case of the Hermes Kelly Bag, named after Grace Kelly. The Birkin bag is a newer bag (1986) by Hermes that is just as iconic to fashionistas. But out of reach for most people due to outrageous price tags and waiting lists.

Great handbags at all price points are a collectible that continues to attract new fans at auctions and sales. So, when you shop for a spring look, remember to check out your favorite resale shop. You might just discover a purse passion.

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