Today, PVC is a controversial material, associated with potentially harmful chemicals and a fast fashion world. But, without it, sustainable transparent bags would not be what they are today. Clear handbags made their way into the spotlight back in the 1960s, but PVC was discovered all the way back in the early 1870s.
Transparent bags were first introduced into fashion around the 1960s through clear mesh bags, mesh shoulder bags, and acrylic clutches. Part of the mod fashion of the time, these clear handbags supported the fun and free lifestyle of the younger generation. Since then, see-through bags have made appearances in high fashion brands like Prada, Chanel, Maison Margiela, and Valentino. Brands and retailers like Off-White and Dover Street Market have also followed suit, offering relatively affordable and accessible high fashion transparent bags.
Let’s uncover the rise of clear handbags in fashion and everyday life—here’s Transparent Bags 101!
Who introduced plastic in fashion?
While the general public (particularly us eco fashion warriors) regards plastic as a harmful material, it plays an integral role in fashion. Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli is credited with being the first to incorporate plastic embellishments into a high fashion collection.
Large, plastic zippers and transparent raincoats were the focus of her earlier collections in 1935-1936. However, the Rhodoid plastic necklace from her Fall 1930 collection (metallic insects encased in see-through plastic), stamped her as a proponent of plastic in fashion.
Plastic as a contemporary material
Until plastic, natural materials like cotton, silk, wool, and flax were used. In 1966, Paco Rabbane put on a couture show called “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials.” This intriguing line included plastic, aluminum plates, and other industrial materials.
Plastic became synonymous with the future and many future-forward fashion collections made use of this now-cool material. Popular in the 1960s mainstream were clear plastic handbags and box purses adorned with the flower power motif of the time and British fashion influences.
The mod fashion of the 1960s
Mod fashion also played a big role in anointing plastic as the symbol of the future. Mod or “modernists” fashion was characterized by bright colors, graphic and artistic prints, miniskirts, and sporty silhouettes. It was designed to be innovative, freeing, and accessible to all, particularly the working-class youth of 1960s post-World War II Britain.
Fashion designer Dame Mary Quant is regarded as the inventor of most mod fashion staples like the miniskirt and the knitted skinny rib sweater. She used PVC or vinyl in her creations, introducing stylish rainwear that looked wet—landing her a British Vouge cover featuring a PVC raincoat and hat ensemble.
Thanks to the material’s transformative nature, it was easy to create futuristic silhouettes compared to traditional materials and techniques.
Plastic in space mod fashion
Dame Mary Quant wasn’t the only one making waves in the 1960s fashion world. André Courrèges also led the revolution, designing futuristic mod looks featuring micro mini skirts (think Star Trek uniforms), clear vinyl sections, go-go- boots, astronaut helmets, and midriff cutouts. Clean lines, modern fabrics (e.g. plastic), and non-restrictive silhouettes were his trademarks.
Even today, many fashion trends are a reference to the mold-breaking styles of 1960s mod fashion. For starters, high-high boots and short hemlines remain a classic no matter the fashion era we’re in.
Transparent bags gain momentum
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, transparent bags weren’t the most popular fashion accessories. Leather bags, mini clutches, and petite shoulder bags took center stage, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clear handbags and backpacks made a comeback.
Seethrough bags in the 1990s and beyond
In the 1990s, see-through bags infiltrated the high fashion world once more. Hermès, a luxury brand known for its leather goods, introduced a clear plastic bag to promote their upcoming fashion shows in 1996. This clear bag served as an homage to the 1995 Paris Terror Attacks and kickstarted the idea of the clear handbag policy, making it easier for patrons to check in through security and for security staff to screen personal belongings for anything dangerous.
Kanye West gets in on the clear material craze
Love him or hate him, Kanye West also pushed plastic into the fashion stage. He incorporated this material into his ladies’ footwear designs in 2015-2017. With the Kardashian clan wearing his designs, plastic became the hot new material once again.
Chanel followed suit in 2018 with their Chanel Spring 2018 handbag collection, which included clear handbags embellished with classic logo stamps, chain handles, and lambskin materials. Whimsical designs like their droplet hobo bag, alongside classic shapes like their shopping bag and flap bag, became all the more enticing when rendered in a colorful PVC material.
At Couture Week in 2018, Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Resort 2018 collection focused on the theme of “posh rainwear to the extreme,” featuring plastic boots, clear handbags, clear hats, and clear gloves.
More fashion houses partake in the transparent bag trend
Around the same time, Valentino, Céline, and Louis Vuitton also incorporated plastic into their collections. Virgil Abloh’s debut LV line for their Spring/Summer 2019 collection showcased a transparent mini duffel. Prada also released a transparent shopper tote.
The selling point behind these clear handbags was that they forced the wearer to edit and curate their personal effects. No longer could we hide the chaotic mix of things in our bag: phone, wallet, keys, snacks, cosmetics, stationery, and whatever else could fit inside.
It forced us to rethink a new aspect of our outfits.
Plus, the water-resistant (often waterproof) material meant the wearer needn’t worry about rain damaging their bag and its contents.
Plastic in fashion beyond handbags
Again, it’s not only handbags that plastic has been used for in fashion. Its malleability makes it a fantastic medium for clothing designs, too. For example, Raf Simons presented his take on modern rainwear with his collection of water-repellant jackets in Calvin Klein’s Fall/Winter 2017 line: classic trenchcoat silhouettes covered in a waterproof plastic layer.
Today’s transparent handbags
Are clear bags still on-trend? The short answer is yes!
Large, plastic totes
Perhaps the most popular of all transparent bags is the tote for practical reasons. This silhouette is especially great for quick errands outside the house, trips to the beach, or picnics at the park.
From the oversized Dover Street Market tote to the petite Bloomingdale Little Clear Bag, you’ll find no shortage of the best size seethrough tote for your lifestyle.
Portable seethrough backpacks
Most appropriate for all-day outings and more dynamic activities like sports events, seethrough backpacks keep your hands free and your valuables safe. And, it means you can pass through security with no trouble, given that your bag’s dimensions are stadium-compliant.
Stylish and versatile clear shoulder bags
If you’re looking for a more traditional bag with just as much room as a small backpack, then a clear shoulder bag will be your best bet. It’ll harmonize with dressy outfits for special occasions.
Cute clutches and crossbody bags
Clutches have been around for centuries, and we don’t ever see them going out of style. Though they may not be covered in rhinestones or embroidered with ornate designs like the 1920s and 1940s clutches of yesteryear, they are still incredibly stylish.
A clear clutch is a fantastic choice for date night when you need something small and portable. On the other hand, you might use a small crossbody bag instead if you prefer to keep your items on you without holding them.