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?

Split suede playing cards

From the private collection of Deanna Hayes

Fanned Playing Cards Purse: This super-rare 1950s split suede purse is a lucky find. "A playful, well-crafted bag like this says so much about you. It's a way to show your individuality and creativity,” says collector Deanna Hayes, who doesn't have a firm price for this favorite of hers.   

Courtesy of Vintage Martini

Embroidered Bag: Architectural in structure, this black vinyl purse embellished with multi-color embroidery melds a modern design aesthetic with classic '50s quality. It’s not about brand when you take this purse in hand; it’s about individuality. Estimated value: $68.  
Suki Genie Bag

From the private collection of Deanna Hayes

Suki Pink Wood and Lucite Purse: If one were granted one wish, it might be to possess this whimsical 1950s basket purse covered in pink braided cord. The white Lucite lid features a hand-painted Genie magically appearing from a lamp. “It’s so cute and makes me happy. It shows how modern vintage can be,” says its proud owner, Deanna Hayes.  
Charles S. Kahn Lucite

From the author’s private collection

Charles S. Kahn Lucite Box: The carvings on the top and sides of this iridescent glitter bag made of Lucite were style essentials in the 1950s. Charles S. Kahn produced some of the most varied and popular. I paid $125 at a vintage show eight years ago, and the price holds.  
Whiting Davis mesh

From the author’s private collection

Whiting & Davis Gold Mesh: This company, which has been producing purses since the turn of the last century, patented mesh-making and introduced the first automated machine to do it. This '60s style cost $45 at the UCLA Thrift Shop's annual designer sale.  
pleated patent

Courtesy of Vintage Martini

Pleated Patent Bag: A conversation piece that will get you flattery everywhere you go. Funky yet stylish, this one-of-a-kind design from the '60s (no label) is a statement in individuality and craftsmanship. Estimated value: $55.  
red tooled leather western

From the private collection of Deanna Hayes

Red Tooled Leather Western Mini Handbag: This special rounded bag hails from the 1940s. Because it’s so unique, it won’t lose its value. And because it's so rare, the price will be a negotiation between buyer and seller.    
Fre-more beaded bag

Courtesy of Gail Pierson, Victorian Dream

Fre-more Hand-beaded Box: “This is the Holy Grail of purses: a never-used vintage bag," says collector Deanna Hayes.” According to experts,  there’s no way a manufacturer could produce this purse today for $275. Inside the high-quality 1950s beauty is a lipstick holder, coin purse and original pockets.
willardy Lucite and Beaded

Courtesy of Vintage Martini

Willardy Lucite Beaded Bag: You won't have to worry about running into someone with the same bag if you go for this brown-tortoise Lucite and black-beaded stunner. Bags like this 1950s one in beautiful condition, are never on the market for long and often increase in value. That's why it’s priced at $248. 
Navy Velvet Sequined Box

From the author’s private collection

Navy Velvet Sequined Box: My mother’s charming satin-lined evening purse from the '50s still houses its original mirror. Whenever I open it, I inhale a sweet whiff of elegance. I recently spotted a similar bag for $68, but for me, this bag is priceless.
Dorset Rex Basket

From the author’s private collection

Dorset-Rex Fifth Avenue Lucite and Silver Chrome Basketweave: A midlevel designer bag sold to high-level department stores and worn on the arm of every stylish 1950s woman. I paid about $70 five years ago at the Santa Monica Vintage Expo.
metallic cut-bead bucket

From the author’s private collection

Black Metallic Cut-Bead Barrel Bag: When I saw this satin-lined beauty in the '80s, it was love at first sight — and my first vintage purchase. It's still my favorite evening bag. “The high 'cuteness factor' keeps purses like this in demand,” explains an expert at the UCLA Thrift Shop.
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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.

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