Trends

Hard-Handle Purses Are the Toughest Form of Chic

Does high style always come at a high cost?

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.

Gucci 1991 Advertisement
A 1991 Gucci Bamboo Advertisement image via The Restory

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.

Gucci Bamboo 9
The making of Gucci’s iconic bamboo handle

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).

Tom Ford Biance Bag

Tom Ford Bianca Bag
via MATCHESFASHION

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.

Bottega Veneta Foulard Bag

Bottega Veneta Foulard
via Bottega Veneta

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.

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N R
N R
1 year ago

Love a good top handle! Lanvin cat hobo is at the top of my wishlist. It looks so much better than the Bottega Sardine.

Seden
Seden
1 year ago
Reply to  N R

Sardine is heavily inspired by the cat bag in my opinion.

N R
N R
1 year ago
Reply to  Seden

That Lanvin cat eats the Bottega sardine for lunch 🙂

Samantha
Samantha
1 year ago
Reply to  N R

I recently discovered this bag and it’s unique and beautiful. 😍

pinksky777
pinksky777
1 year ago

I own that exact green Bottega bag shown and it’s not a version of the sardine fyi, it is it’s own bag called the Foulard (or the bandanna bag at times) so maybe do some research. I also own the sardine in bitter chocolate. First off, both those bags are actually both relevant AND timeless, as opposed to that hideous and tacky Lanvin cat bag. I don’t know or see one single person talking about Lanvin right now, or Gucci for that matter. It’s all about Prada, Bottega and The Row.

Laura W
Laura W
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

Your attitude though…… 🤦🏼‍♀️

N R
N R
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

A. The article is referring to a FW 2023 Bottega Sardine with glass handle à la Coperni. It does not imply that the Foulard is a version of Sardine.
B. Not everyone lets “what people are talking about” dictate their taste.
C. To each their own.

Bybego
Bybego
1 year ago

The haldel finished perfect the design. They look cool, and they are confortable to use. I afore them all

Klara P
Klara P
1 year ago

If they make the bamboo with the narrow strap as above, I would have bought one already. I couldn’t get the new one for the web strap. The SA said but you didn’t have to use it. Yes and no. I don’t really want to buy something knowing I’ll never use it. And I like a top handle bag with a shoulder strap mostly just for the look it. (I bought a strap for my Alma in my 30s and all of sudden the Alma didn’t feel so “old” and “uptight” anymore although I mostly handhold. Funny how a dangling strap can pivot the image.

pinksky777
pinksky777
1 year ago

Also, can we start to get articles by people who actually perhaps know what they’re talking about? This is like the zillionth time I’ve had to correct something and I don’t even work for this site, it’s really pathetic. Where do you find these ppl, on the street or something???

Ban Her
Ban Her
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

Perhaps you should seek therapy as every single comment you leave is unhinged and disrespectful.

Laura W
Laura W
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

Maybe you would be better placed unfollowing and disengaging from this site you call pathetic? A zillion times correcting something must be all consuming, so freeing up some time might really benefit you. Unless you thoroughly enjoy trolling as a hobby?

Samantha
Samantha
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

Honestly, could you be any more insulting? Also, anyone who has been on this site knows you own the green Bottega bag. It’s really all you talk about.

Josieverona
Josieverona
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

Fishing for a job?

N R
N R
1 year ago
Reply to  pinksky777

What exactly are you correcting? The article talks about and links to the Sardine bag. There is a picture of the Foulard(also a top handle) and it is labelled correctly. Get off your high horse!

mgreer
mgreer
1 year ago

What is the purple bag in the head image?

N R
N R
1 year ago
Reply to  mgreer

I believe it is Hermes.