These five handbags have become as iconic as the fashionable women who first sported them.
A staple of every woman's closet, the handbag is both a functional accessory as well as a collector's item. Although the concept of a handbag or a purse has been part of history since ancient ages, the modern day carry-all as we know it today was invented in the mid-nineteenth century. The British entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson commissioned leather handbags for his wife's train travel and these became coveted by wealthy and aristocratic women in Europe, though were considered impractical by the greater population.
In 1955, Coco Chanel invented the 2.55 bag, the first handsfree purse that women could carry from their shoulders. From long to short straps, every top designer has invented their own unique style, from the iconic Birkin bag by Hermès to the flap bags of Chanel. Though of course the design and aesthetic of the bag is important, the popularity of many handbags has derived from the women who were first seen with them. Celebrity has often driven trends throughout history, especially in the fashion world, and vintage bags have also become smart investments at auction. Here are five famous women who have inspired the world's most iconic, and collectable, handbags.
Arguably the most coveted handbag, the Hermès Birkin originated on a flight from Paris to London in 1984 when Jean-Louis Dumas, the chairman of Hermès at the time, and British actress Jane Birkin were seated next to one another. When Birkin complained about the lack of a chic, yet functional travel bag, Dumas decided to reinvent a past model of Hermès bag in black leather and rechristened it the Birkin. Quickly, the new handbag reached cult status and was in high demand, with all bags having to be custom ordered at Hermès in a wide range of materials, from classic leather to exotic crocodile skins, and accentuated in elegant metallic hardware.
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Due to their high craftsmanship (each bag is handmade in France) and the exclusive nature of ordering a bag, which includes being a frequent customer and having a relationship with the brand, Birkins are an excellent investment. Editions often resale, both at auction or in secondhand boutiques, for at least double the price they were originally purchased for at Hermès.
In fact, the world's most expensive handbag is a Himalaya Birkin made of white crocodile skin with white gold hardware embellished with diamonds. It was sold in 2020 for £297,000 at Christie's Hong Kong.
The most ubiquitous Dior handbag today was originally an unreleased model that the First Lady of France, Bernadette Chirac, gifted to Princess Diana on her trip to Paris in 1995 at the Paul Cézanne exhibit at the Grand Palais. The black leather handbag soon became Diana's favourite accessory. She was often photographed carrying it worldwide, from an official trip to Buenos Aires later that year to the Met Gala in 1996.
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Originally, the house of Dior had named the model 'Chouchou' (French for 'pet'), but after it became popularised by Diana, it was nicknamed 'Princesse' and then officially became the 'Lady Dior'. The bag's design was an homage to both Christian Dior himself and French heritage. The bag's quilting is referred to as 'cannage' (French for 'caning'), which is a nod to the Napoleon III chairs that were found at Christian Dior's Avenue Montaigne home that guests were seated on during his runway shows. The metallic DIOR letter charms that dangle from the handles speak to the lucky charms that Christian Dior, who was very superstitious, often carried with him.
Today, the Lady Dior bag has been reissued in a variety of styles, with different materials, colours and sizes. Vintage versions from the 1990s have sold for up to £15,500 at auction, as well as those in exotic materials like colourful crocodile skins.
As First Lady from 1961-63, Jackie Kennedy set a new standard for style in America. Her iconic fashions, from custom looks by Oleg Cassini to couture from European ateliers like Chanel and Valentino, were rapidly sought after by the American public. The 'Jackie Look' was characterised by her pillbox hats, skirt suits, strapless gowns, white gloves and A-line shift dresses. After the assassination of JFK in November 1963, Jackie moved to New York City and then married shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis in 1968, splitting time between Europe and the US until 1975 when she returned permanently to New York. In the decades following the White House years, Jackie's style evolved into a simple yet elegant look of wide-leg pants and flowy skirts, simple t-shirts and turtle necks, flats, Hermès scarves, over-sized sunglasses and the Gucci saddlebag in leather and canvas.
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The luxe hobo-style handbag, first introduced in 1961 as the G1244, was revived in 2020 by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele as the Jackie 1961. The new style has the same shape as the original, but in a smaller size and in vivid colours, as opposed to the neutral shades touted by its namesake. However, the rename of the bag shows the endurance of Jackie's impeccable style, of which Valentino said, "Few women in history have captured the imagination the way she did."
First discovered by Grace Kelly on the set of Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief in 1954 when the bag was purchased as a prop, the Kelly bag has become associated ever since with the Princess of Monaco, who was frequently photographed with it. The bag was a reincarnation of a 1923 Hermès bag revived in 1934 as a larger travel bag known as the 'Sac à dépêches' (French for 'dispatch bag'). In 1977, it was officially renamed the Kelly. Like its famous younger sister, the Birkin, the Kelly is also handmade and features leather and metallic hardware. However, the bags differ with the Kelly having only one handle, a shoulder strap and a trapezoid shape.
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Grace Kelly was one of most popular fashion icons of the twentieth century and so the Kelly bag quickly became the sought-after status symbol by both American and European women. She famously used the bag to shield her stomach from the paparazzi when she was pregnant with her first child, Caroline, in 1957. The princess also popularised the crocodile skin Kelly, which are among the most expensive Hermès bags today.
Kelly bags enjoy the same resale value as Birkins, making them important collector's items. A rare Himalaya Kelly, made of white crocodile skin with palladium hardware, sold at Christie's in 2018 for £160,875 and crocodile Kellys often achieve six-figure prices. Despite the caché of the Birkin bag, the Kelly remains Hermès' best-selling handbag model.
Although Audrey Hepburn was the muse of Hubert de Givenchy, who dressed her for films like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Sabrina, her favourite handbag actually came from Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton was founded by its eponymous trunk maker in 1854 to provide trunks for Paris' elite, such as Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. He designed lightweight, stackable travelling trunks and even invented the first pick-proof lock. The famous 'LV' monogram was patented in 1896 and throughout the twentieth century, the brand expanded their leather goods offerings, from travel luggage into handheld purses and wallets.
Introduced in the 1930s, the first version of Hepburn's beloved bag was a monogrammed 30 cm bag used for travel. In 1959, Audrey Hepburn requested a smaller, handheld version of the bag that would be easier for everyday use. Renamed the Speedy 25 – in reference to its 25-cm-size – this petite bag instantly became the ultimate Louis Vuitton classic thanks to Hepburn, a legacy that continues to today.
Louis Vuitton's frequent collaborations, as with artists like Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama, have always included a limited-edition Speedy bag, which sell for high prices at auction.