By Cheryl Anderson
I began writing this article about the “Birkin” on June 16, 2023, unaware at the time it was the day Jane Birkin, for whom the bag was named, passed away. My research was done, notes were laid out before me, I was poised to write, when suddenly an alert came up on the computer with the news about Jane. Since then, tributes and a video of her relating the story of how the Birkin bag began have appeared. I was aware of the story, but hearing her fill in that story with every charming detail makes it so much more interesting and absolutely correct…delightful in fact.
The interview went like this:
On a flight from Paris to London, Jane was upgraded sitting next to Jean-Louis Dumas, Executive Chairman of Hermès…that she said was “a very polite gentleman.” At some point, her agenda fell open scattering “bits of paper and everything.” Dumas says to her, “You should have pockets in that agenda.” Jane then says, “What can you do? Hermès don’t make it with pockets.” Dumas replies, “I am Hermès.” A bit taken aback hearing that, Jane replies, “I’ll give you my agenda if you could make something with a pocket, that would be lovely.”
Jane asked Dumas, “Why don’t you make a handbag that’s a bit bigger than the Kelly and not as big as my suitcase which weighs a ton.” “Like what?”, he asks. She says, “I did a wee sketch on, (in her words), a vomit bag,” with her ideas. Dumas took it with him and a month later she got a call from Hermès inviting her to come and have a look at the bag they had created made of cardboard…”it looked lovely in cardboard actually.” They looked at leathers and such. Eventually, the bag, in a smooth leather, was finished. (Her original bag was in the Victoria and Albert museum, Bags: Inside Out exhibition, in 2021.) When she picked it up they asked if she would mind if they called it her name. “Oh, I said, with pleasure. You know, I was flattered after the Kelly and everything.” They gave her the bag that would forever more be known as, the Birkin.
Hermès site described the event like this:
“Who could have imagined that one of the most coveted objects of recent decades would be born in the sky, in 1984, on a flight from Paris to London? British actress Jane Birkin, sitting next to Jean-Louis Dumas, Executive Chairman of Hermès (1978-2006), was complaining that she couldn’t find a bag suitable for her needs as a young mother. A born creator with a keen eye, he immediately sketched a supple and spacious rectangular holdall with a burnished flap and saddle stitching . With a dedicated space for her baby’s bottles!”
The Kelly, is the other most famous Hermès handbag. What is the story of how Grace Kelly discovered the handbag that would eventually bear her name? It goes back to the Alfred Hitchcock movie, To Catch a Thief. A must see classic. Grace starred in the movie. Hitchcock allowed costume designer, Edith Head, to purchase Hermès products for the movie. Edith said that Kelly “fell in love” with the bag. From then on, it became a Grace Kelly signature accessory–that began on the silver screen.
A number of years ago there was an amazing exhibition in Monaco of everything Grace Kelly. Especially featured were highlights of her entrance into Monaco’s royalty—news reels, her clothing, handbags, photos, and her famous much loved, battered and worn brown Kelly handbag that was later exhibited, in 2010, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The famous photograph appearing in Life Magazine of her holding the bag discreetly in front was hiding the fact she was pregnant. That’s when it became known as the Kelly, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Hermès made it the official name of the bag. A truly charming version of the Kelly is the Hermès Picnic Kelly 35. To go with it, perhaps the Medor Picnic Collier de Chien, bracelet. Summer chic!
Hermès site states:
“In the late 1950s, legend has it that Grace Kelly, a Hollywood star turned princess of Monaco, was photographed holding the bag over her stomach to conceal the early signs of her pregnancy. The bag shot got international fame and was renamed the Kelly.”
The story of the Constance handbag is very sweet. Catherine Chailler, an in-house designer, designed the bag in 1959. Catherine gave birth the same day the first bag came off of the production line. The baby girl was named Constance. It was decided to give her baby’s name to the new Hermès bag…with the bold and shiny “H”. Jackie Kennedy made it one of her favorite accessories—the popularity of the Constance instantly increased.
It’s not surprising that the first “bag” the House of Hermès created was for the equestrian in the early 20th century…the Haut à Courroies, (tall with straps, in English). Also known as the HAC, was originally made to carry a saddle, a pair of riding boots and gear. The design of the closure and sangles found their way to the Birkin. Now, the larger HAC is used, often by men, to replace the briefcase, backpack, or an elegant weekend travel bag. The smallest of the HAC bags is named the HAC à dos, PM and GM sizes, complete with a wide strap making it a cross-body. There are many sizes of the HAC to choose from—there’s one to fit every need.
The Bolide…the original was first designed around 1923.
The Cruise shoulder bag appeared in the 1980s.
The Hermès site discusses the Haut à courroies:
“The Haut à courrier was the very first Hermès bag, created in the early 20th century. Designed to carry a saddle and riding boots, this clever and functional bag made life easier for riders and brought them elegance. The flap could be laid flat against the back of the bag, creating a wide opening. As if absorbed by the bag, the two saddle flaps were held in place by the straps, like a conjuring trick! Quintessential saddlery know-how. Over time, the Haut à courroies has retained its function as a holdall. A trapezoid design gives the bag flexibility capacity. Light reflects on the brass of the turnlock and padlock, both as emblematic in Hermès leather goods as the saddle-stitch. The couchette key-holder is the finishing touch for this bag, which stands firmly on the small base studs.”
The Malette handbag in red leather, a favorite in the 1950s and 60s. It had a…”separate jewellery compartment that had its own unique lock and key separate to that of the main bag.” It’s thought that Grace Kelly had this type of bag. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
An early version of the Malette bag from the 1930s made in brown crocodile skin with a compartment below the main bag to carry jewelry. The Malette handbag in red leather, a favorite in the 1950s and 60s. It had a…”separate jewellery compartment that had its own unique lock and key separate to that of
The Kelly in ostrich…1986 version. Stunning! A 1920s example of the Hermès traveling bag for a gentlemen. It featured a zippered top with the Hermès trademark lock, and a lower compartment for shirts. In the earliest of days, Hermès always designed pie
A 1920s example of the Hermès traveling bag for a gentlemen. It featured a zippered top with the Hermès trademark lock, and a lower compartment for shirts. In the earliest of days, Hermès always designed pieces that were practical as well as beautiful.
Émile Hermès’ wife was in need of a handbag and so a smaller version of the Haut à Courries was designed for her. The Bugatti bag, was made for Julie Bugatti in 1923, wife of Ettore Bugatti…unique for a handbag in that it had a zipper pull designed by Émile-Maurice Hermès and Ètorri Bugatti. In 1935, Robert Dumas designed the Sac à dépêches bag. Over time the Sac à dépêches evolved and became the Kelly.
Hermès bags and handbags are expensive and a much desired fashion accessory. The Birkin is considered a Veblen good, a luxury good. Meaning that when the price of the good increases the demand increases. Indeed, the Birkin has held its value— myriad colors, leathers, fabrics, sizes and skins to choose from. It’s appeared in movies and on TV shows…a prop ladies notice. There are many variations of the Birkin…the Sac Faubourg Birkin 20, is fun with a young spirit.
With unrivaled craftsmanship and commitment to quality each of these iconic Hermès bags and handbags has a story, a legacy. They will remain forever chic… and forever loved.
Quotes and Pictures:
The Hermès Scarf—History & Mystique, by Nadine Coleno, Thames and Hudson, publisher.
Little Book of HERMÈS, The Story of the iconic fashion house, by Karen Homer, published by Welbeck.