The 70s were one of the defining decades in fashion, and handbag design was no different. Some distinctly new handbag designs were coming on the scene, including mesh handbags and bags made from fine materials decorated with embroidery, fringe, applique, or decoupage. Both casual and formal handbags were being designed to make a statement.
This is one of the most diverse decades in history, with music spanning from disco to the first heavy metal. Handbag design was just as diverse, but with heavy influences from the hippie style. The bohemian aesthetic led to using natural materials in eclectic ways, while club goers sought flashier designs. Meanwhile, the classic designer handbags of the 50s and 60s also continued to be popular.
Although designers were busier than ever, 70s handbags share one thing in common – their materials are all easily accessible to all, with a wide range of quality and price available. The goal of bringing fashion to the masses meant that common and affordable materials be used. As such, there are only 8 materials that are found most frequently in 70s handbag design.
Supple leather and suede
It’s no surprise that leather is the first material on our list. Leather and suede are still the favorite for handbag construction. It’s light, durable, can be treated to withstand water, and has been easily affordable at varying levels of quality since the Industrial Revolution. The Bohemian aesthetic loves natural materials like leather, and the hippies left their mark as well with the fringe that almost always showed in some way on leather and suede handbags of the 70s.
Leather and suede were also used, at least in part, to create the straps of purses made with other materials.
You might not think of canvas as being a common material for handbags, but in truth it was used far more than people realize. Although totes and other canvas bags were not as popular, canvas was used for the interior lining of purses made from other materials. Most inner linings of handbags in the 70s were made of either canvas or nylon.
Cotton and cotton blends
Cotton isn’t a waterproof or durable material, so it makes sense that it hasn’t been a popular fabric for making handbags. But in the 70s mesh bags were all the rage, and when you wanted to combine the stylish mesh handbag with the Bohemian look, the end result was crocheted mesh handbags made of natural cottons and cotton blends.
As already mentioned, nylon was (and still is) widely used for the inner linings of handbags made from all types of materials and designs. Nylon was also used in weaving the popular mesh handbags, and it is used in many other casual handbag and purse designs. Nylon is a cheap material, so the more inexpensive handbags are more likely to be made of nylon.
In general, velvet was a fabric in high demand in the 70s. Everything had to be velvet, from furniture to clothing to footwear to handbags. Even the “Velvet Elvis” comes from this time. Velvet handbags often featured fringe as well, but they didn’t have a lot of other ornamentation. The velvet itself was the fashion statement; the design of the handbag was simple.
Why is metal so far down our list? Metal used in grommets, fasteners, clasps, zippers, snaps, buttons, and decals is prevalent, and you’ll find some kind of metal in nearly every bag on the market. However, the 70s had a different trend – they were actually carrying purses made of metal. The ever popular mesh bags were also made with chainmail. The most sought after designers offered hand linked chain mesh handbags at exorbitant prices.
While not overly popular, straw bags and purses did surge for a bit in the 70s. Straw bags were not limited to beach totes but could also be a normal straw purse with a leather strap designed for daily casual use. The straw was often decorated with some faux flowers or other 3D décor.
Yes, wood! While very uncommon, and only popular for a very few years, decoupage box purses were interesting enough to mention. These were wooden boxes that were decoupaged and had a handle added. Some allowed for a strap to be attached as well. These were very interesting and unique, but they weren’t very practical.
The handbags of today
Today’s handbags are still made of the same materials, although straw and wood purses are (thankfully) long gone. Other than the occasional straw beach tote, you’re not likely to see it on the handbag design scene again. However, handbags are also taking a new turn to the Bohemian theme, finding new natural materials to use in producing handbags.