Handbags can often be potent status symbols: think of Thatcher’s Launer London bags and Grace Kelly’s Hèrmes purse. Investment purchases such as these, which have stood the test of time, are usually sturdy leather designs with a metal clasp. But contemporary designers including Kate Spade, Olympia Le Tan and Lulu Guinness have shown that women are now prepared to spend vast sums of money on altogether more whimsical styles. Among their recent collections are flowerpots, miniature jukeboxes and slices of fruit.
The original 1940s “novelty bags” that inspired these designs are now fetching large amounts at auction and on curated retail platforms such as 1stdibs.com. Anne-Marie of Paris is the ne plus ultra of brands due to its rarity and the surreal nature of the designs, which include a mandolin (complete with strings), a telephone, and pianos, all adapted to carry a lady’s essentials for an evening out. This included little more than a lipstick 70 years ago; space for keys and cash was not required until the advent of the fully independent woman.
Anne-Mariehad a boutique on the ground floor of a grand hotel in Paris, where VIP guests could expect one of her celebrated “champagne bottle” handbags waiting for them in their suites. These striking bags were designed to look like an ice bucket and were festooned with decorative ice cubes made from lucite – at the time a very avant-garde material to use in fashion – surrounding a miniature bottle of champagne.
Kerry Taylor, founder of specialist vintage fashion auction house Kerry Taylor Auctions, describes how it was not uncommon for VIP guests to receive novelty handbags to commemorate grandiose events: “One of most unusual novelty bags I have seen was an art-deco leather clutch in the shape of an ocean liner called Le Normandie, made in 1935, whose metal clasp was made to resemble the ship’s funnels. First-class passengers received this bag as a gift on her maiden voyage.” Le Normandie – the most luxurious cruise ship of its time – sailed from Le Havre via Southampton to New York carrying some of the best-dressed women in the world. Any gift to their wardrobe would need to be le dernier cri in style and design.
ModBag is a Chicago-based dealer in vintage accessories (and which also sells through 1stdibs) that carries an impressive range of novelty handbags, including several originalAnne-Mariedesigns such as the champagne bucket ($3,800, first picture) an oversized packet of Chesterfield cigarettes made from cream leather ($4,500, second picture), a “hand of cards” cut from black suede whose clasp is a life-size die ($3,800. third picture), and a black suede cocktail bar decorated with miniature liquor bottles ($3,800, fourth picture). Due to their age, the fragility of these accessories means they are more suitable for display than carrying around town, but that doesn’t seem to deter collectors: the ornamental style of Anne-Marie bags becomes a glass cabinet just as much as the crook of an arm.