Ladylike handbags with a playful twist

An alluring fusion of traditional forms and modern flourishes is putting frame bags back in the picture, says Clare Coulson

Mulberry crocodile-print-leather Large Pembroke bag, £1,450
Mulberry crocodile-print-leather Large Pembroke bag, £1,450

Last autumn, when Netflix debuted its sumptuous series The Crown, documenting the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it was tipped to become a key fashion influence for designers in 2017. Michele Clapton’s exquisite costumes were a timely masterclass in the elegant, crisp style of the 1940s and 1950s, and yet another reminder of how steadfast the Queen’s most trusted accessories have been throughout her 65-year reign – not least her no-nonsense, boxy framed handbags, which she had favoured even before she acceded to the throne in 1952.

From left: Valentino calfskin bag with Rockstud detailing, £1,990. Anya Hindmarch calfskin Bathurst bag, £1,295
From left: Valentino calfskin bag with Rockstud detailing, £1,990. Anya Hindmarch calfskin Bathurst bag, £1,295

Yet before The Crown was even released, some designers had already tapped into the desire for sturdy bags that hark back to a more subdued age when a quietly luxurious handbag was made (and expected) to last a lifetime rather than a few seasons. At Céline’s spring/summer show, creative director Phoebe Philo showcased the Clasp – a bag that recreates all the neat chicness of those 1940s and 1950s bags with its robust frame, single hand-held strap and perfect angular brass clasp on the top of the frame that closes with a reassuringly crisp snap. It comes in glossy black crocodile (€20,000), leopard-printed marmot fur (€3,500) and high-shine calf and box calf (both €2,900), and there are mini and oversized iterations too.

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“There’s definitely a new mood,” says Eleanor Robinson, director of accessories at Selfridges. “Women are looking for something understated and ladylike.” Robinson points out that although these bags represent a shift in tone, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to be pairing them with a pencil skirt and a full 1940s look. Instead, she says, they work best when contrasted with more directional looks, as seen at Céline, or even more casual pieces. “I think they look great with jeans and a cashmere jumper, or a Rick Owens leather jacket – having a very smart handbag pulls it all together, and that bit of structure makes you feel quite sharp.”

Miu Miu leather bag, £1,420
Miu Miu leather bag, £1,420

At the Céline show, Philo paired her Clasp bags with beautiful oversized double-breasted jackets and kick-flared leather trousers; with gauzy white dresses in painterly prints; and with caped silk-crepe jersey dresses in bubblegum pink. These resolutely modern creations, with their exaggerated proportions and cool fabrics, put a contemporary spin on a thoroughly old-school accessory.

From left: Mansur Gavriel calfskin Metropolitan bag, £845. Gucci leather and grosgrain bag, £2,020
From left: Mansur Gavriel calfskin Metropolitan bag, £845. Gucci leather and grosgrain bag, £2,020

Philo isn’t alone in reviving these structured bags. Miu Miu’s spring show included neat white or pale-yellow frame bags (£1,420), styled with an additional shoulder strap. Pierpaolo Piccoli in his first solo season at Valentino has included a tomato-red frame bag (£1,990) edged with tiny Rockstud detailing. Miuccia Prada (who, admittedly, has always been an advocate for the ladylike accessory) included a couple of frame bags with a 1950s spirit in her spring collection too: the trapezoid black Paradigme Saffiano leather bag (£1,890) and the smaller Bibliothèque bag (£1,380) in red and burgundy leather. At Elizabeth and James, founders Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who also established The Row, have chic frame bags (£300) in glossy black or oxblood mock croc.

Céline calfskin Clasp bag, €2,900
Céline calfskin Clasp bag, €2,900

New York-based brand Mansur Gavriel has added ladylike styles to its collection too – the boxy Posternak and the slightly more rounded Metropolitan bag both draw on the sleek lines of the 1940s with their simple top handles, brass hardware and no-nonsense shapes. The Posternak comes in vegetable-tanned leather (£625), as well as white or rose calfskin (£725); the Metropolitan is available in coated calfskin (£845), vegetable-tanned leather (£750) or grosgrain (£725) in delicious colours, including sky blue, persimmon red (a signature shade that the brand calls Flamma), rose pink and caramel, as well as black. Both the Posternak and Metropolitan will be available in big gingham checks in red or black too (£615 and £725 respectively).

Mark Cross leather Hadley bag, £2,205
Mark Cross leather Hadley bag, £2,205

When Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel launched the brand in 2012, their focus was very much on soft, casual silhouettes – drawstring bucket bags, totes and later backpacks. These new, ladylike shapes, as well as the similar-shaped Elegant bag – which was introduced last season – mark a new direction. “We are interested in interpreting classic shapes in a clean, minimal manner,” says Mansur of the new styles, before noting that she and Gavriel have intentionally fused traditional shapes with modern flourishes – applying more “rich and natural materials” such as the vegetable-tanned leather to the nostalgic and refined bag shapes, or tweaking small design details. These silhouettes, adds Gavriel, offer the perfect opportunity to create playful contrasts. “The thicker handles add a pop element that’s clean and elegant. And the shapes of both bags are simple and bold, and the perfect canvas for playing with material and colour.”

From left: Elizabeth and James crocodile-effect-leather and suede Eloise bag, £300. Prada Saffiano leather Paradigme bag, £1,890
From left: Elizabeth and James crocodile-effect-leather and suede Eloise bag, £300. Prada Saffiano leather Paradigme bag, £1,890

The key to the reinvention of many of these nostalgic shapes is the juxtaposition of something very traditional with more whimsical details, a fact neatly illustrated at Gucci, where Alessandro Michele has adorned a scarlet leather bag (£2,020) with appliquéd yellow “sunrays”, graffiti and a fat grosgrain bow topped with a metallic feline head. He has used a similar silhouette for a bag (£2,840) in GG Supreme canvas with embroidered lobsters, a leather appliqué flap, a fox-head closure and a handle studded with pearls.

From left: Sacai leather That bag, £1,155. Launer calf and lizardskin Traviata bag, £2,190
From left: Sacai leather That bag, £1,155. Launer calf and lizardskin Traviata bag, £2,190

Anya Hindmarch is another advocate of adding whimsical twists to very formal bags. Her Bathurst (£1,295) may have a ladylike silhouette, with its deep front flap, but it’s been modernised dramatically with zingy colours and her signature bells and whistles – topped with such touches as geometric leather appliqué and mink “cherry” tassel decorations (tassels an extra £395). It can be further customised with rainbow straps and myriad charms and stickers.

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At Mulberry, creative director Johnny Coca has added the Large Pembroke retro bag (£1,450) this spring. With its chunky brass lock, 1940s-inspired handle and classic finishes such as a dark‑brown crocodile print, it recalls old-world elegance, but with a very Mulberry twist. “There’s a desire for conservative values right now, almost a nostalgia for past times,” says Coca. “Yet people also want to be resolutely modern.” His solution? To add touches such as colour-blocked smooth calf leathers (£1,450) and school-tie stripes (£1,550) that give a playful feel to something with a traditional silhouette. In his spring show Coca toyed with the tension between traditional and modern, topping those bags with chains, charms or chunky plaited straps, and pairing them with wool collegiate striped skirts and dresses – “I call this classic unclassic,” he says.

Chitose Abe chose a similar path for her debut collection of Sacai bags, created with accessories stalwart Katie Hillier. In her spring show the frame bags (£1,155) in black croc or smooth leathers were topped with colourful handles or straps that had been wrapped in vibrant silk scarves. They were carried – and the ergonomics of these new bag shapes is also worth noting – scooped up in the hand, with the straps casually falling down.

The revival of the frame bag has, of course, been a boost for firms that have produced them for decades. Launer, which launched in 1941 and has had the Queen’s Royal Warrant since 1968 (she is rarely seen without one of its bags), is a consistently strong brand at Selfridges, where international shoppers love the bold colours in exotic skins, especially lizard (Traviata, £2,190). “It’s the epitome of that understated ladylike handbag,” says Robinson. “And with that clean structure there’s also a real focus on the quality of the skins, the craftsmanship, where the seams end.”

It’s a similar story at Mark Cross, founded in Boston in 1845, which, thanks to its Jazz Age heritage and screen presence (the brand’s bestselling overnight case starred in Rear Window alongside Grace Kelly), has enjoyed an incredible revival in recent years. The pebble-grain Hadley (£2,205) has a wonderful old-world spirit.

More than half a century ago, when frame bags were first in fashion, designers, including royal couturiers such as Hardy Amies, bemoaned their sturdy lines, which they believed ruined the dresses they created. It’s hard to imagine any designer having these qualms today. Quite the opposite: these ladylike bags with a modern edge bring elegant élan to a spring wardrobe.

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