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Handbags of the '80s

by Laura Leddy Turner, studioD

Young women of the 1980s saw handbags and other fashion accessories as an extension of their identities. Members of the "Me Generation" chose bags that reflected their success, taste and lifestyle. The social excesses of the '80s influenced the style of handbags, but conservative and classic models also managed to hold onto their fan bases. Additionally, women swept up in the decade's physical fitness craze sported a uniform that included scrunchy socks, colorful leotards, aerobic shoes and a chic, updated version the old-school gym bag.

All in the Name

American women of the 1980s were strongly influenced by top designer names and labels. Women snapped up the latest handbags offered by designers such as Coach, Gucci, Dooney & Bourke, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. They were willing to pay the high prices that went hand in hand with these bags' distinctive stylings for the added bonus of their equally distinctive logos. Coach's small, leather baggage-type tag, Dooney & Bourke's raised figure of a duck on an oval, Fendi's reverse-mirrored letter F, Louis Vuitton's "LV," and Gucci's green and red cloth stripe were easy to spot on a handbag and widely regarded as status symbols.

Chained and Clutched

Bright colors, metallic finishes and heavy doses of hardware were hallmarks of 1980s handbag style. Chain-handle purses, first introduced by Coco Chanel in the 1950s, saw a resurgence in popularity and were produced in the '80s by Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, among others. Clutches, big and small, were a popular handbag choice for dress-up occasions. Basic black alligator, or metal-embellished, clutches were carried by the elegant, bigger-then-life power ladies of television shows like "Dallas" and "Dynasty," and were tucked under the arms of young New Wave concertgoers.

Backpacking in Style

While some elements of fashion grew larger in the 1980s -- hairstyles and shoulder pads, most memorably -- the backpack shrank in size and became a handbag alternative. It all began with Prada's introduction of the Vela nylon backpack, a small, sleek lightweight version of standard hiking equipment. Other designers, such as Louis Vuitton, Coach and Dooney & Bourke soon came out with their own streamlined leather versions, each still proudly announcing its logo but remaining minimal in hardware and embellishments. Chanel, however, offered an elegant, quilted, chocolate, leather backpack with gold-toned chain-link and leather straps that easily could have accompanied the wearer to a dressy affair.

Bermudas and Bradleys

On the conservative side of the 1980s stood the delightfully changeable Bermuda bag and the soft and colorful Vera Bradley bag. The Bermuda bag first became popular in the 1970s among girls and young women. Its charm lay in the fact that its egg-shaped body was reversible. The body also could be completely changed out simply by purchasing a new one and attaching it to the standard-size wood frame handle. Vera Bradley's soft, quilted fabric bags entered the handbag scene in 1982. The casual bags came in a variety of sizes and styles, from small purses to large duffles. Their distinctive patterns -- primarily florals and paisleys -- came in a range of bright, cheerful colors.

Fashion Hits the Gym

Actress and singer Olivia Newton-John told women of the 1980s to "Get Physical," and they did, in record numbers. As aerobics fever lured women to the gym, fashion brands such as Nike, Le Coque Sportif and Adidas lured them into dressing up to sweat it off. These sportswear companies also provided women with fashionable bags to tote their leg warmers and Spandex tights around. The brightly colored nylon or vinyl, double-handled duffel bags, which typically displayed the maker's name in large letters, were a must-have accessory for the 1980s aerobics queen. And size mattered. The bigger the gym bag, it was assumed, the more serious a woman was about having rock-hard abs.

About the Author

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.

Photo Credits

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