The Clutch Bag: History & Origin

The Classic Clutch

First things first…what is a clutch bag?

Like most generic terms, the phrase ‘clutch bag’ can be used to describe a wide range of bags, there is no precise set of dimensions or characteristics which define it. Essentially the clutch bag is a small, flat handbag, without handles or straps, however there are larger bags, with a handle or detachable straps which are also described as ‘clutch bags’. Slim and primarily hand held are perhaps the two qualities which best define the bag.

Origin of the clutch bag

The Origins of the Clutch

Bags and purses predate pockets and the clutch bag seems to have been a very early solution to the problem of carrying small possessions of value. We know of the existence of such bags from paintings and tapestries, but few examples have survived because of the perishable materials from which they were made. A seven hundred year of bag owned by the Courtauld Gallery in London may well be the oldest surviving example of a clutch bag. The bag is originally from the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq and is a clear indication that such accessories were, from the outset, signifiers of wealth and status. Extraordinarily modern in design, the bag has a solid brass body and is inlaid with scenes of courtly life in gold and silver. A front flap is fastened with a catch, just like a contemporary ‘envelope clutch’. In Medieval Europe, women wore small bags attached to a belt or girdle by means of a chatelaine, a small hook which itself became an item of jewellery. In the Middle Ages bags and purses were mainly concealed for reasons of security but a change in fashion led to the purse/bag becoming an object of ostentation. The discovery of Pompeii in the late Eighteenth Century had a profound effect on public taste, particularly on architecture and clothing. Women’s clothing became lighter and less voluminous and the waistline moved up to sit just below the breasts. Consequently, bags or ‘pockets’ could no longer be disguised within the folds or the dress and thus the forerunner of the clutch bag, the reticule, was born. The reticule was a small bag, similar in design to the contemporary clutch, which was worn from the shoulder by means of a cord or a chain. The increasing emancipation of western women in the Nineteenth Century, meant that bags became larger, the carpet bag for example, and what we would recognize as a clutch bag all but disappeared. It was the resurgence of classical style dresses in the Nineteen Twenties that led to the creation of the classic clutch bag. The advent of the diaphanous flapper dress called for a bag that would not detract from the line of the body, a strap free, handle free bejewelled eyecatcher which the owner could use as a prop to direct attention. Designers like Van Clef & Arpels and Tiffany & Co began to produce exquisite gem encrusted clutches which swiftly became an essential accessory for wealthy socialites and Hollywood starlets. Initially an accessory for the very rich, the rationing of materials imposed by the Second World War led to the popularity of the clutch as an everyday item. In the decades since the clutch has never gone out of fashion and in the Nineties Judith Leiber ‘Queen of Clutch’ combined futuristic and retro styles to create Swarovski Crystal encrusted clutches loved by the likes of Lady Gaga and Katie Perry. Chances are that a quick nose in most women’s wardrobes today will reveal a clutch of clutches.

How to wear a clutch

One of the attractions of the clutch is its theatricality; everyone with a clutch instantly becomes a starlet. The very fact that you have to hold it means that you are very conscious of its position; clutches are ostentatious, designed to draw the eye: a clutch requires performance. Princess Diana, famously used her clutch to cover her cleavage when emerging from cars or situations where a high angle photograph might result in an undesirable image. Arguably though, using the clutch in this way actually served to draw attention rather than deflect it. Contemporary royal, Kate Middleton, resolutely holds her clutch with both hands in front of her midriff. This rather unflattering stance means that she doesn’t have to shake hands with anyone: etiquette requires a royal to extend their hand to you before you shake hands with them. Unless you are going to balance it on your head or clench it between your teeth there are essentially five ways to hold a clutch bag.

  1. Hold it at the bottom, like a newspaper. It’s a secure way to hold the bag and it leaves you one hand free.
  2. Hold with both hands in front of the body. This should always be a transitional position, if you stay like this all evening it just looks like you don’t want to play.
  3. Hold it at the end. Super casual: ‘What, this old thing?’ Just be sure that you’re confident about that fastening.
  4. Hold it at the top with your index finger extended. The clutch now becomes a much more gestural device, think Sherlock Holmes and his pipe.
  5. Under your arm. When you really do have to tuck into that plate of yummy food. Again, a transitional position, otherwise you’ll be in danger of looking like one side of you is paralysed. 

Types of Clutch 

The Classic

So many types of clutch are described as classic as to make this an almost meaningless term. Rectangular, oval or circular, small enough to hold in one hand, that’s about as much as you can say.

The Envelope Clutch

A very pleasing design: a flat, usually rectangular bag with a triangular flap top, like an envelope.

The Day Clutch

Not what your twenties starlet would have recognised as a clutch this is a clutch for the office, it’s much bigger than a conventional clutch and will probably have interior pockets. It might be the bag that you slip inside a bigger bag. It’s certainly going to be a more stylish bag to take into a meeting than that overflowing tote.

The Evening Clutch

What do you actually need to carry? Credit card, car keys, phone or nothing at all. The primary function of an evening clutch is glamour, unencumbered freedom, a touch of the flapper.

The Clutch Bag for Men 

The portfolio bag please, we’ve only just got over the last crisis in masculinity. Portfolio bags, alright, they’re big clutch bags, are now a fixture of men’s fashion shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan. They’re big enough to take a tablet and a few papers and they don’t make you look like some Bob Cratchit drudge dragging a stuffed briefcase around.

The Alternatives

Clutch vs Purse

Small clutch, big purse, in terms of dimensions there’s probably not a lot to choose between them: the difference lies in their application. A purse is likely to be stuffed with store cards, credit cards, driver’s licence and a whole bunch of other stuff that you really don’t want to have to replace; a clutch may just have your favourite lipstick and a packet of mints. A clutch is freedom and fun, a purse, grown-up responsibility and personal admin. 

Clutch vs Handbag

The Clutch vs The Handbag

I mentioned earlier that women’s developing emancipation in the Nineteenth Century was reflected in the growing size and importance of the handbag. The more involved you are in the outside world, the more stuff you are likely to want to carry around with you. Janis Joplin famously, bought a Mercedes with $10.000 that she produced from her handbag, it was a carpet bag, a style much beloved of hippies. Today the handbag is a fetishistic object which is worn as a mark of personal branding to project an image of wealth and status. The same can be said of the designer clutch except that the clutch is essentially a much more fun-loving and frivolous item. 

Clutch vs Tote

The Clutch Vs The Tote

You may have a very classy, designer label tote but it’s still a utility item. It’s got a big sensible opening that you can put things in quickly. It’s got sturdy handles so that you can lug it around when you’ve overfilled it and you take it with you everywhere. Your clutch bag celebrates its impracticality, it’s way too small to fit very much in it and if you risk putting it down there’s a danger you might forget it. But your clutch, and I bet you’ve got more than one, has a special place in your wardrobe because it’s transformative: you put on your best evening dress and your clutch is the magic talisman that transforms you from stressed out working woman to carefree socialite.

Check out our full range of Clutches & Totes here

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