ESSE Purse Museum — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
Anita Davis knows you can tell a lot about a woman by the bag she carries. So, in 2013, she opened the only purse museum in the United States in her hometown of Little Rock, and it’s a must-see.
One of just three purse museums in the world, the ESSE Purse Museum is filled with hundreds of handbags, telling a fascinating story not just of style and fashion but of women’s history in the 20th century.
"Handbags, in many ways, are extensions of our true self,” she says. “They are our constant companions and carry our most essential daily objects. What better way to get a sense of what a woman's life might be like throughout history than through the handbag?"
Check out these 10 stunning bags – one representing each decade – and be sure to visit the museum’s store to buy your own piece of history from an eclectic collection of 21st century styles.
Round suede wristlet with carved celluloid trim and cameo — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
Small purses were common at the beginning of the century since most women had no need to carry much more than calling cards, smelling salts, a handkerchief and a change purse.
This round suede wristlet features a cameo and a carved trim made of celluloid – an early plastic commonly used as a replacement for decorative accents as ivory supplies dwindled.
White leather purse with button trim, chrome clasp, chain and interior pocket mirror — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
Clean, geometric lines defined the beginning of the Art Deco era. Purses were considered an everyday accessory as men went off to World War I and women took on the head of household role.
Clothing became simpler so women could dress without assistance from maids (who they could no longer afford), but purses became more complex. Because women were falling in love with cosmetics, designers added interior pockets and compartments to hold them.
Peacock-themed evening purse with glass beadwork — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
As purses took on the role of fashion showpieces, glass beaded and mesh evening bags were considered the height of style. This peacock-themed evening purse with glass beadwork is typical of the era.
Once women were given a voice through their newly-earned right to vote, they roared through the twenties, making statements by carrying purses bursting with bold design and color.
Powder blue Rodolac clutch with incised window pane design and carved wooden clasp — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
After the Great Depression, with money too tight for most women to buy new wardrobes, purses offered women an easy and fun way to change up their outfits. Made out of plastics like Rodolac, which became popular because of its durability and low cost, they felt like a splurge.
The clutch was a favorite shape and literally gave women something solid to hold onto during these rocky times.
Telephone cord purse — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
Wartime rationing led to the use of alternative materials for making products that weren’t essential to the war effort. This purse is made from telephone cord! It came in a variety of color combos including, of course, red, white and blue.
Functionality and patriotism ruled, and handbags became larger and more practical to hold all the necessities of a self-sufficient woman.
Poodle clutch with silver beadwork, made in Japan — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
During the “Mad Men” era, women were defined by domesticity and motherhood. Although purses began to get smaller and more fun, they always had room for coupons, keys, an address book and, yes, cigarettes.
As represented in this clutch with silver beadwork, the poodle became an iconic symbol of the 1950s housewife. Production of many accessories shifted to the Far East at this time, with Japan emerging as a major manufacturer.
Yellow vinyl smiley face tote — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
One look at this yellow vinyl smiley face tote and you know you’re back in the '60s. Counterculture was dawning, and it was the era of mod, psychedelic, space-age looks.
The fashion industry experienced a revolution, influenced by the youth movement and the call to “do your own thing.” It became more accessible and more diverse, representing the “anything goes” philosophy of the baby boomers who were just coming of age.
Round leather purse with velvet kaleidoscope inlay — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
Large leather bags were the “it” purses of the decade. Slung over a shoulder or across the body, they left women’s hands free, empowering them to enter the work force en masse during the rise of feminism.
Crushed velvet, patchwork and unstructured, novel shapes were popular at this time, and were a natural progression from the Bohemian, hippie chic of the '60s.
White leather patchwork shoulder bag by Sharif — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
This was the decade of the yuppies – the young upwardly mobile professionals. Women were trying to have it all and they needed to carry more and more. Bags became larger and more practical, and a shoulder strap was a must.
This white leather patchwork shoulder bag by Sharif, an Egyptian-born New York designer, perfectly encapsulates the style of the '80s: opulent materials, brand labels and bold, over-the-top design.
Black quilted shoulder bag by Chanel — Photo courtesy of Nancy Nolan
A backlash against the excess and power dressing of the '80s resulted in a return to the classics and “good” pieces. Women invested in smaller designer bags like this black quilted shoulder bag by Chanel.
Created by Karl Lagerfeld, who was now head of the iconic company, it paid homage to the classic purse Coco Chanel introduced during her comeback in the 1950s. It signaled a return to femininity in the second half of the '90s.