The History of the Wicker Bag
In honor of what we have officially named the first annual National Wicker Bag Day on June 23rd, we at J. McLaughlin are paying tribute to the iconic summer staple with a look back at the history of our favorite warm-weather accessory.
We’ve always giggled a little at the irony of referring to wicker bags as a “trend” when the material has been documented as far back as ancient Egypt (seriously, archeologists uncovered wicker baskets in the tombs of wealthy pharaohs that were used for carrying food, water, even children). Traditionally made of willow, rattan, reed and bamboo, the light-yet-sturdy nature made wicker baskets ideal for carrying anything heavy. Over time, the popular material passed from Egypt and Persia to ancient Rome, where wicker baskets were used to carry items in Pompeii.
An ancient basket excavated at Deir el-Bahri, Egypt in 1931 (courtesy Museum of Modern Art).
In the centuries since then, wicker basketry spread across the globe and evolved in both function and fashion—from the wicker basket warehouses of Tokyo in the Edo period (1615–1868), to transporting elegant lunches into the outdoors at trendy Victorian picnics, to serving as shell carriers in World War II, and eventually onto the arms of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s.
So the next time you grab your go-to wicker clutch (what, you don’t have one?! JMC bags to the rescue!), think of how far that little accessory has come—and how chic and copyable every one of these retro looks still is today.
Victorian Picnic Baskets
Because the very word “picnic” conjures up images of lidded baskets filled with baguettes and silverware, accompanied by a blanket under a shady tree, it’s bizarre to think of a time when the concept of a picnic existed without a picnic basket. But such is the case, for while picnics came into fashion among Paris society in the 1600’s, through the 18th century they were strictly indoor affairs, the name merely indicating a meal in which each guest contributed a share (be it financial or culinary.)
In the early 1800’s, picnics began to move outdoors as the development of trains, bicycles and motor cars made the countryside more accessible, particularly in England, and by the early 20th century, outdoor picnics had become the norm. Specialist picnic baskets were produced for the mass market, and the meals they carried became more standardized.
The Picnic by Antonio Garcia Mencia, 1874 (courtesy Fine Art America).
The 1950s & 1960s
By the 1950s, picnic baskets had shrunken down to purse size, and become the must-have, quintessential handbag of the decade. Brands like Los Dorados popularized whimsical embellished versions with ribbons, fabric fruits and flowers. What started as a casual summertime style quickly evolved into a sophisticated, high-fashion item, like Elizabeth Arden’s elevated take on a shrimp basket (complete with compass) in 1956 and soon wicker bags were on the pages of every fashion magazine and the arms of every international starlet.
Left: Models at a Beach photographed by Richard Rutledge for Vogue, January 1957 (courtesy Fine Art America). Right: Italian actress Virna Lisi in Rome, 1959 (Photo by Angelo Cozzi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images).
Jane Birkin and the 1970s
While kitschy wicker purse styles were mostly left behind in the 1960s, the style kept evolving and seeing new peaks in popularity, none more iconic and influential than the ubiquitous wicker bag of Jane Birkin. Filled with everything from apples to newspapers and even diapers, Jane Birkin’s basket bag became a signature of her constantly-photographed, oft-copied, and effortlessly cool French style.
Jane Birkin shopping in Paris, June 1970 (courtesy Getty Images via Vogue.com).
So to say that wicker bags are “trendy” or “classic” ignores centuries of heritage, evolution and style. Whether it’s with neon pink trim on the arm of Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl, or a preppy striped trim at a beach bar on Nantucket, wicker bags keep evolving but they are undoubtedly here to stay. Happy National Wicker Bag Day, and we look forward to many more years of stylish celebrating to come.
Leighton Meester as Blair Waldorf carrying a wicker bag in Gossip Girl in 2008 (courtesy Getty Images via Cosmopolitan UK).