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Vintage Handbags: Owning a Little Piece of Fashion History

What could be better than a little bit of art, history and style all rolled into one exquisite artifact?

By Ellen Seiden | June 7, 2012

It was a black metallic cut-bead flip-top barrel handbag from the ’40s that hooked me. Tucked among dusty bric-a-brac in the late, great Antique Alley at the ‘Dell in Los Angeles, it called to me, and I had to have it, whatever the price. Back then, I didn’t even know the collectors' credo: “If you want it, buy it. Don’t let the one you love get away.”

That was 27 years ago, and I paid $50, which seemed a fortune then. Recently, I spotted a nearly identical one bearing a price tag nearly triple that. Not that I’d ever part with mine.

From childhood, I adored my mother’s beautiful evening bags, like her French black seed-pearl purse with a Limoges clasp, and her navy velvet flower-sequined box. Today these cherished handbags are part of my heritage and my personal style.

What is it about vintage bags that make them so irresistible? I think it’s that they let you hold a little piece of fabulous fashion history in your hand. You might not be able to afford a couture gown, but you can own a beautifully crafted, unique bag, often made from materials you'd never find a contemporary purse made from. 

And you can use it every day — as does Deanna Hayes, who, over 31 years, has amassed a collection of more than 300 vintage purses. She has at least one to match every pair of her vintage shoes, and she changes her bag almost daily. Occasionally she lets one of her beloveds go and sells it in her online shop — “when it’s not in my 'regular wearing rotation' and I want to give someone else a chance at it.”

The real fun, though, is in the hunt. The best places to shop for vintage bags are at flea markets, vintage clothing and antique stores, thrift shops and vintage expos. Do a little research and you might stumble upon a little-recognized yet highly collectable designer like Nettie Rosenstein, mentor to Judith Leiber, designer of iconic novelty bags (e.g., bejeweled animals). 

Purses are often labeled mint, near mint, excellent or good condition, but “every dealer has his own standard,” says Ken Weber, vintage purse and clothing expert at Vintage Martini in Texas. “When buying online, especially at auction, always ask what’s wrong with the purse. You need to know what you’re getting.” Rare purses of unusual shape, color or style features, impeccable quality, and collector demand drive prices up. Depending where you are, how special and rare the purse is, you could pay anywhere from $20 to more than $2,000 for designers like Chanel, Burberry and Gucci. 

Of course, if you buy with your heart, nothing else really matters.