Model at New York Fashion Week showing a Louis Vuitton handbag.

A handbag, or purse in American English, is a handled medium-to-large bag that is often fashionably designed, typically used by women, to hold personal items such as wallet/coins, keys, cosmetics, a hairbrush, pepper spray, cigarettes, mobile phone etc.



A medium-to-small-sized handbag with a short handle, designed to be carried (clutched) in one's hand, is often called a clutch[citation needed] which is similar to a pocketbook.

Vintage pocketbook

A larger handbag with two handles is often called a tote.[citation needed]

A security bag protects the carrier from travel theft and includes an invisible stainless steel strap sewn into the fabric and a protectant on the main zipper.

Child's purse

Young girls also use small purses or clutches, but usually just for play or dress-up.[citation needed]

Modern origin

The modern purse or handbag came about in England during the Industrial Revoluion and the increase in travel by railway. In 1841 the industrialist and confectionery entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson of butterscotch fame ordered a set of travelling cases and trunks and insisted on a travelling case or bag for his wife's particulars. Parkinson had noticed his wife's purse was too small and made from material that would not withstand the journey. He stipulated that he wanted various hand bags for his wife, varying in size for occasions and for them to be made from the same leather as being used for his cases and trunks. H J Cave (London) obliged and produced the first modern set of handbags, as we would recognise them including a clutch and a tote (named as 'ladies travelling case'). These are now on display in the handbag museum in Amsterdam.[1] H J Cave did continue to sell and advertise the handbags but many critics said that women did not need them and a bags of such size and heavy material would 'break the backs of ladies'. H J Cave ceased to advertise the bags from 1865 and concentrated on trunks, though they still make the odd handbag for Royalty. However, his design lives on and the use of leather has not been found to break many ladies backs.[citation needed]

Types of handbags

Crocodile skin handbags in a conservation exhibit at Bristol Zoo, England
  • Clutch, a small, yet long (rectangular), evening bag without a handle
  • Pocketbook
  • Satchel, a soft-sided case usually of leather, used to carry papers or books; usually has a handle and often has a strap
  • Duffle bag, a large bag usually used for travel or sports
  • Tote, a medium to large bag with two straps
  • Messenger bag, a bag with a long strap to be worn across the body
  • Sling bag, a bag with a long strap (similar to a messenger bag), yet smaller
  • Laptop purse, a medium to large bag that contains a padded interior compartment or sleeve for protecting a laptop computer.
  • Camera bag, to carry photographic equipment
  • Cosmetic bag, to hold cosmetics
  • Half moon bag, a bag shaped like a half moon
  • Muff, a winter bag made of real or faux fur, wool or velvet that has zippered compartments and a slip opening for hands
  • Shoulder bag, a bag with a shoulder strap

See also


Further reading

  • Pedersen, Stephanie (2006). Handbags – What Every Woman Should Know. Cincinnati: David & Charles. pp. 128 pages. ISBN 13 978-0-7153-295-0. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • handbag — hand bag n. a small bag usually made of cloth, leather or a similar imitation material, and often having a strap to permit carrying it by slinging it over a shoulder, used by women to carry money and small personal items or accessories; as, she… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • handbag — (n.) also hand bag, 1854, from HAND (Cf. hand) (n.) + BAG (Cf. bag) (n.) …   Etymology dictionary

  • handbag — [n] person’s carryall backpack, bag, clutch, evening bag, grip, hide, knapsack, leather, pocketbook, portmanteau, purse, reticule; concept 446 …   New thesaurus

  • handbag — ► NOUN Brit. ▪ a small bag used by a woman to carry everyday personal items …   English terms dictionary

  • handbag — [hand′bag΄] n. 1. a bag, usually of leather or cloth, held in the hand or hung by a strap from the arm or shoulder and used, esp. by women, to carry money, keys, and personal effects 2. a small suitcase or valise …   English World dictionary

  • handbag — noun ⇨ See also ↑purse ADJECTIVE ▪ big, capacious (formal), large ▪ designer VERB + HANDBAG ▪ clutch …   Collocations dictionary

  • handbag — 1. noun /ˈhandbaɡ/ A small bag used by women (or sometimes by men) for carrying various small personal items. Syn: purse 2. verb /ˈhandbaɡ/ Figuratively, to hit with a handbag; to attack verbally or subject to criticism (used originally of ) …   Wiktionary

  • handbag */ — UK [ˈhæn(d)ˌbæɡ] / US noun [countable] Word forms handbag : singular handbag plural handbags a small bag used by women for carrying personal things such as money and keys. The usual American word is purse …   English dictionary

  • handbag — Very effeminate man. A. Do you think Chris is gay? B. Are you kidding? He s definitely a handbag …   Dictionary of american slang

  • handbag — 1) n British a male escort, a walker . Handbag refers to a decorative appendage to a fashionable lady, often a homosexual male. The term was popular in high society and journalistic circles in the mid 1980s. 2) vb British to frustrate, obstruct… …   Contemporary slang

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