I have a case of vintage plastics in the shop: celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite. There are a half dozen plastic handbags, which are fun and fabulous. So what’s the background of these unique (clear!) purses?
Well, during the post World War II years, plastic carried the cachet of glitz and glamour. In industrial and interior design, modern materials and geometric forms were considered cutting edge. That idea spilled over into fashion, whose designers soon turned to sturdy plastics like Lucite to create fashion-forward handbags and purses.
Created in 1931, Lucite became a replacement for earlier plastics like Bakelite and Catalin and was adapted for use in jewelry and fashion accessories during the late 1940s.
Lucite bags were considered high fashion. Though made of plastic, these bags were not cheap. A purse could run as high as $65, which was nearly a month’s rent in New York.
By the 50’s, designers’ imaginations ran wild: purses came in imitation mother of pearl and mock-tortoise. They were filled with glitter, confetti, raffia, ribbons, silk flowers, and real butterflies. The exteriors had rhinestones, beads, precious metals, faux pearls, inlaid embroidery, seashell collages, fabric “curtains,” or hand-painted detailing. Some makers adopted ivory-carving techniques to create detailed, hand-sculpted pieces with deep, three-dimensional patterns.
However, some of the most stunning Lucite bags were very simply designed to emphasize the extraordinary clean lines of their magical plastic materials.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking form of Lucite purses were those made from perfectly clear plastic, which violated the handbag’s long tradition as a secret sanctum for personal belongings. Often filled with a scarf to hide their contents and match a woman’s outfit, these transparent bags imbued their owners with a strikingly modern, brash 50’s modern style.