What’s your earliest handbag memory? The one that perhaps jumpstarted your love for bags? Or the first time you became privy to the poise a luxury purse possesses? For me, long before my days of stealthily sneaking Vogue issues into my room or voraciously soaking in television reruns of The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls, it was my mom’s collection of handbags. More specifically, one striking scarlet number with gleaming metal handles that I’ve later come to ID as the British high-street label, River Island.
In hindsight, it was perhaps my mom’s penchant for all things shiny (including her fascination with patent leather) that made this particular handbag, though long disintegrated, permanently embedded in the mind of her four-year-old. And now, nearly twenty years later, it seems that those very purses are having a major resurgence, boasting thick, solid handles that could double as a weapon. Move aside quiet luxuries (although The Row pieces currently populating my wishlist say otherwise)! As we enter an era of top-handle supremacy, one trend that’s begun popping up everywhere is hard-handled handbags. Today, we explore why this immensely chic (and massively painful) style is suddenly on trend again.
Gucci Leads the Way!
Unlike many of today’s nostalgia-induced revivals, hard-handled bags, molded of metal for the Flapper style chainmail purses of the 1920s, or fashioned out of resin and wood, right on trend with today’s cottage-core aesthetic, really dates much further into the past.
But it wasn’t until 1947 that the iconic Gucci Bamboo, the most recognizable hard-handle of the century, was conceived. With historical heft and cultural clout spanning over a hundred years (and 22,000 songs!), a lot of Gucci’s fame can be attributed to a chance decision by Guccio Gucci in post-WWII Italy. Faced with a shortage of leather and fabrics, he introduced a new silhouette, then dubbed the 0633, complete with bamboo handles and a bamboo detail turn-lock. Readily imported from Japan – and highly durable, too – the process (since patented by the brand) saw canes of bamboo softened with heat, manipulated by hand, lacquered, and toasted over a flame to achieve the glossy finish we love.
And because the handles are still made using this decades-old technique in Gucci’s Tuscan factory, it remains a distinctive house icon nearly eighty years later – no two pieces ever the same!
Necessity, it seems, is not just the mother of invention but also of style.
And the Style Took Flight!
Already a darling among the fashion set, Gucci’s now unmistakable 0633 proved to be just the sort of ladylike, yet edgy, design that the era’s starlets craved. And nowhere was this seen more prominently than in Hollywood in the 50s. With a legion of fans including the legendary Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly (of Hermès fame), and Ingrid Bergman, the latter even carrying an iteration in her 1953 film, Viaggio in Italia, the bamboo, revived by Dawn Mello in 1989, tided Gucci through many a hardship, and continues to draw re-interpretations even today.
Most importantly, however, it signaled to fashion houses that a material as unexpected as bamboo could achieve ground-breaking recognition. Enter the prodigal Tom Ford with his very own non-conventional answer to Gucci’s bamboo, the YSL horn! Famously having said, “What bamboo is to Gucci, the horn is now to Saint Laurent,” Ford launched the Mombasa, with its tell-tale deer antlers, in 2001, ironically serving as the creative director to both YSL and Gucci. Like his much fangirled-over pieces at Gucci, the Mombasa too unfailingly drew lengthy waitlists and celebrity fans comprising Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Richie, quickly making its way into the It-bag hall of fame. Ford later devised the similarly-silhouetted Bianca bag, this time with a sizeable metal handle, for his eponymous label (which he also retired from recently).
The Comeback of the Hard-Handle
Throughout the subsequent decades, the hard handle remained stylish in some capacity, through a third coming of the bamboo at Gucci in 2010, while metal handles found permanence at the Edinburgh-based brand Strathberry. But the biggest impetus for its resurgence came in the 2020s, when, riding on the wave of Y2K nostalgia, interest renewed in the YSL Mombasa (you might remember me advocating its return last year). Then Paris-based Coperni’s partnership with the Brooklyn-based glass-blowers, Heven, resulted in an ultra-fragile, hard-shelled version of its whimsical Swipe bag, some even accompanied by their very own pair of devilish horns.
Finally, and most notably, Mathieu Blazy reimagined his predecessor’s well-known Jodie bag with a rather “fishy-looking” metal handle, creating the Bottega Veneta Sardine! Equal parts a tribute to Sardinian fishermen, and a breezy style statement, the Sardine, since updated with a thicker glass handle (à la Coperni), has been shrunk to microscopic proportions, inflated to gigantic versions, and is perhaps the perfect culmination of the hard handle bag’s longstanding history.
Gird Your Loins… and Your Shoulders!
Christian Louboutin was famously known to have said, “il faut souffrir pour être belle” – you must suffer to be beautiful. And it is this that perfectly encapsulates the essence of hard-handled purses because, at the end of the day, these refined carryalls, whether the painfully heavy Mombasa or the carefree-chic Sardine, are meant to be glamorous and ladylike, resembling their original mid-century counterparts.
And just like absurdly mini purses – or sky-high stilettos, for that matter – demand a certain unbothered lifestyle from us, replete with chauffeured vehicles and personal assistants, so do these (despite sometimes being “ludicrously capacious,” but also about as shoulder-friendly as a full-grown toddler). In fact, though these hard-handle bags are essentially a no-logo logo, they function as quiet luxury pieces, embodying the old money aesthetic. I suspect it is to portray this sense of financial freedom, why hard-handled handbags have taken off as a trend today more than ever before.