“Representative Ruth Bryan Owen has designed a handbag for business women,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. In 1931, the Congresswoman’s pocketbook made the news. Her choice of accessory became a subtle statement about gender expectations in Congress.
Owen prided herself on her attention to detail in her appearance, carefully matching the form of her accessories to their function. The Florida Representative told a newspaper that “she has often searched for weeks for just the right bag for an evening costume, just the right necklace for a certain gown.” It was, perhaps, no surprise that she ended up designing her own bag for her role as a Congresswoman.
“How to replace man’s customary thirteen or more pockets in the costume of the woman legislator has been solved by Representative Ruth Bryan Owen,” a newspaper reported in 1931. “Her invention is a knapsack handbag, slung from one shoulder. She contends the lawmaker’s hands must be free for handling bills and briefs, without mentioning oratorical gestures. All the necessar[ies] go in the knapsack.” The bag’s design also included a silver buckle on the strap, a monogram, and spiral stitching throughout.
Reporters gawked at the innovation: “It is a sort of knapsack hung from her shoulder,” the Boston Globe ventured. The Chicago Daily Tribune broke it down for confused readers: “Mrs. Owen fastened her handbag, knapsack fashion, to a ribbon which she placed over her shoulder . . . . The strap or ribbon passes over the right shoulder, crosses diagonally in front and back so that the handbag rests on the left hip.” Struggling with terminology, some even referred to it as a “handbag”—although Owen specifically designed the bag to be hands-free.
Owen’s “knapsack handbag” drew notice for its size and for the way she wore it. The Congresswoman didn’t invent the across-the-shoulder bag, but large carryalls hadn’t yet become chic for women. The predominant purse style of the 1930s was an aerodynamic clutch influenced by Art Deco design.
In the early 20th century, Congressmen carried their wallets and other necessities in their pockets, leaving their hands free to sign documents or hold the Congressional Record. Pockets were so common for men that when Congressman Clare Hoffman of Michigan chose to have his outfits made without them, his streamlined suits made the news.
But Congresswomen wore dresses, not pants, and their dresses typically didn’t have pockets. Like their female constituents, they held handbags. Clutches created a problem for women Members, Owen contended, because women needed their hands free to work on legislation. Several photographs from the early twentieth century show Congresswomen getting creative with their handbags in order to keep at least one hand free.
Behind Owen’s design was a message about the changing role of women, both in society and in Congress. “As containers of what is essential and important to women, so the bag is connected to the history of their lives,” wrote fashion curator Claire Wilcox. For Owen, a large bag was the right tool for her work as a legislator, and later as a diplomat. A photograph from 1933 shows her with a different bag, which the caption terms a portfolio. At the time, rumors circulated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was about to give her a diplomatic appointment. The photo caption theorizes that Owen will carry the bag to Europe. Her substantial leather bag appears large enough to carry papers and books, all the paraphernalia of a politician. While the small clutches popular in the early 1930s might only fit cosmetics, money, keys, and cigarettes, Owen had other accoutrements to sport because of her profession.
Owen’s design made a small impact in women’s fashion in its day. In 1932, a Washington Post article proclaimed: “Inspired by Ruth Bryan Owen is the new very large felt under-the-arm bag, almost a brief case, with special compartments for writing pads and so on, and intended for women of affairs, whether in welfare work, politics or business.” However, the trend didn’t go much further at the time. In the 1980s, a Christian Science Monitor reporter noted that Owen “almost made the knapsack fashionable back in 1931,” but there wasn’t enough demand for a shoulder bag that left a woman’s hands free to work. Around fifty years later, with more women in politics and the workforce, “Mrs. Owen’s knapsack-handbag quietly slipped into fashion without a nod of thanks” to the Congresswoman who designed it.
Sources: Atlanta Constitution, 11 January 1948; Boston Globe, 17 December 1931; Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 April 1931; Christian Science Monitor, 8 September 1983; New Orleans States, 16 December 1931; Washington Post, 28 March 1929 and 25 September 1932; Claire Wilcox with Elizabeth Currie, Bags (London: Thames & Hudson in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017); and Winifred Gallagher, It’s in the Bag: What Purses Reveal—and Conceal (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).Follow @USHouseHistory