FREUD SAID THE purse was a symbol of female anatomy, a receptacle for the mysterious and hidden. A woman who went out into society carrying one was clutching her womb, so to speak.
The Chanel 2.55 bag—timeless object of purse-envy—was a kind of rebirth. It was not the first bag created by Coco Chanel. Her first, in 1929, caused scandal. Having become “fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them,” and inspired by military satchels, she sewed on an extended strap to allow women to carry the bag hands-free and over the shoulder. Making a shoulder bag socially acceptable for ladies offered new freedom of movement and a nod to sexual liberation in Jazz Age Paris.
Chanel was famous for many things, including her romantic liaisons with the likes of Stravinsky and British royalty. Her 2.55 bag, named for its appearance in February 1955, had a secret zippered compartment in its front flap for keeping love letters. The bag's long shoulder straps were made of linked metal chains, and its quilted leather body resembled the pattern on jockey jackets. Its inner lining was the burgundy color of Chanel's childhood Catholic-school uniforms. Inspired by her girlhood impressions of horses’ bridles and harnesses, and of the keychains of the caretakers at her orphanage, the bag expressed both freedom and restraint, mastery and submission. As Vogue noted in 2013, “The genius of the Chanel bag can be found in its versatility—it has managed to be the perfect accessory, be its wearer in jeans or black-tie, artfully disheveled or painstakingly put together, for more than half a century, invading not only our wardrobes but our cultural consciousness as well.”
The bag was part of Coco Chanel's fraught 1950s comeback, 15 years after she closed her business as World War II began. It proved to be an emblem of Chanel's own ability to rise again, unscathed, after her wartime collaboration with the Nazis. In a social set in which anti-Semitism was pronounced, Chanel had been a secret agent for the Germans and mistress to a German intelligence officer.