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Why Handbags Are Fashion Symbols

Although it’s unclear when the cultural shift happened, we began to judge people by their handbags. At some point, luxury status symbols openly carried began to speak volumes about the person who was carrying them. The importance of handbags comes from their origin and evolution. We’ve been primed to recognize and receive handbags in a certain light, even if we aren’t sure why. The prominence of handbags is a long story that begins all the way back at World War II, and it continues through the present day.

They Signify the Liberation of Women

Women did not always carry handbags. This isn’t because women didn’t want to be stylish – it’s because they couldn’t afford them and had nothing of value to carry with them. Around World War II, all the men were at war. Women had to take over many of the important roles necessary for keeping the country together, and they entered the workforce in droves. Out of necessity, women did things that weren’t ordinarily considered “women’s work”, like factory and manufacturing work.

For the first time ever, women had incomes. They were financially independent and supporting their family. This gave them purchasing power. Although most people were operating on very tight budgets during World War II, the occasional splurge on a non-essential item wasn’t entirely impossible. Many women began making their own handbags with surplus material and fabric scraps from garment factories.

A woman with a handbag was seen as hardworking and autonomous, especially if she had purchased an expensive handbag. That handbag was a status symbol. It meant that a woman could afford to buy something nice for herself, essentially creating the female equivalent of a leather briefcase that men would often use to signify their workplace status.

Women looked at other women carrying handbags with a certain kind of envy. It wasn’t the physical object of the handbag, but what it represented. Handbags meant a new future for women. One that was empowered and came with certain freedoms that were not previously attainable to the average woman. From that moment on, handbags became a metaphor for everything women ever wanted.

Your Bag Says Something About You

After World War II, things gradually changed. We came into the era of the working mom and the fully independent, unmarried women who elected not to have children. Norms and roles changed, but the significance of the handbag did not. Women had more purchasing power because they comprised a significant portion of the workforce, some of them in managerial or executive positions that offered better salaries. Purchasing a handbag was nowhere near as difficult as it used to be.

The market attempted to keep up with the times as things shifted. This is where the luxury designer bag came into play. Anyone could obtain a regular purse for less than $50 from a big box retailer. Only the elite could afford to spend thousands of dollars on a heavily branded bag that clearly spoke its price to everyone through repetitive monograms and distinctive color schemes.

Many people seek these luxury handbags as status symbols without understanding how and why they happened. The practical consumer now prefers a beautiful, functional bag at a price that will allow them to purchase several variants that will match their outfits.

Repurposing the Handbag from a Status Symbol to a Fashion Symbol

A high quality affordable handbag isn’t as difficult to come by anymore. As consumer attitudes shifted, these became the best solution for most women. Quality handbags at affordable prices give women options. It’s not abnormal to have five or ten handbags to rotate with different styles and different outfits. They became a part of the average women’s silhouette, and the finishing touch for a complete ensemble.


Handbags have a rich and complex history that the average consumer may not be aware of. What was once a visual signifier of a movement became an important accessory with a utility feature. The reasons may have changed, but the handbag has not. They will remain a part of our lives (and our outfits) for decades to come.