I have several reptile skin handbags from the 1950s that are in good condition except for one thing – without exception the handles were all unusable because they were made out of a thin strip of leather with the reptile skin glued over the top. That skin had deteriorated from use, age, and the glue used when they were made. In many cases it was too cracked and had broken off and it looked terrible. This is why other people threw these handbags away and I managed to get them for very reasonable prices.
My first try was to take them to a good shoe and leather repair shop to find out what they could do to replace the handles. I actually visited three shops for estimates. The verdict was unacceptable as they could not, match the skins and any other repairs they suggested wouldn’t be as pretty and would cost way too much – more for fixing one bag than I had already invested in my entire collection of 6 of them! I didn’t think these shops were being very creative!
I love the styles of these purses. Very lady like and formal and to be carried not flung over your shoulder. They are just so feminine and civilized. And, of course this is currently in style on the runways if anyone cares about that. New ones are being designed by all the big names and cost a small fortune.
Of course I developed my own solution – both affordable and pretty as can be while remaining well suited to the original era of these purses. I am getting asked about it and getting compliments on my bags every day I use them. So here is what I did.
Example One: The Crocodile bag pictured above had a badly split, but still attached handle. I simply took a very long and tough oblong shaped scarf which is a synthetic chiffon from India in a leopard skin print and pulled it through the metal link on one end of the handle until it reached the middle of the scarf (so both ends were equal lengths. I then double wrapped the handle by wrapping one end around, then overlapping it by wrapping the other end around until I got the entire handle covered. At the end I tied a secure and attractive knot to hold the scarf in place and create the decorative scarf tie ends as shown. None of this gets in the way of opening or closing the bag. The handle is now reinforced and no one can see that it is broken under the fabric. This took a lot of fabric. The scarf I used is 76 ” long and 18″ wide!
Example Two: The elegant navy bag above is actually leather, not snakeskin. I love the hardware on it! It is a burnished gold with little stars embossed on it like a piece of elegant costume jewelry. It’s leather handle was unusable. I had to remove it. I was left with a metal ring on end to which the original handle had been attached. The circumference of the metal rings was not very big.
My solution was to take a very thin vintage belt that I happened to already have that would fit through the rings. It also happened to be red and it is what is now under the scarf. It doesn’t match the bag at all but it doesn’t have to as it is completely covered by the scarf. The job of the belt is to create a strong secure handle. I simply pulled it through and buckled it! The buckle is hidden under the scarf at the V on top of the handle. The length is perfect buckled on the smallest size of an S length belt.
I then took a large square silk scarf in a pretty complimentary print, folded it in a triangular half, then brought each end inwards to the center folding to create a long skinny scarf folded rectangle with the points at each end (such as you would to tie it around your neck) and pulled the scarf through the belt halves at the top of the V in the middle of the handle. I secured the scarf with a knot at the middle of the buckle, then began wrapping each side individually downward, tightly covering the belt and pulling its two sections together, until I got to each of the ends with equal scarf point lengths remaining. I carefully knotted them to look about the same and dangle down artistically on each side of the bag. This makes a very secure handle with double strong leather straps inside the silk scarf wrap. I think it is also very attractive. The scarf I used is slippery shiny soft silk and is a huge square. It is a small geometric print with large paisleys on it and a navy border around the edges. It just happened to work out well for this particular bag.
Example Three: This Bag is in Perfect Condition Now! I removed the completely broken down original handle and pulled a brown silk cord belt I just happened to have through the metal loops doubled it and knotted it at the correct length letting the ends with the decorative knots on them hang down on one side. I then took a small vintage 50’s silk chiffon square scarf in complimentary browns, gold, orange, white, and green colors and pulled it through the knot and tied it into a fluffy little floppy bow to decorate the one end of the purse. Voila! I have given this purse a new life and I didn’t spend any money on expensive repairs.
The cost of the above purse and renovation was: $9.95 for the purse at an estate sale. (Good price due to broken strap!) 99 cents for scarf at a thrift shop. And the cord belt I already had on my miscellaneous belt rack. I spent $11 total on this lovely spring bag! It is very clean inside and even has its original coin purse, mirror and comb intact!
Example Four: Here is Real Black Patent Leather Purse. It is from England and I think it was made in the 1960’s. It is large and roomy and perfectly clean inside. The handles on this one were in great shape with no problems at all. The clasp is a pretty silver with an embossed design like a piece of jewelry. This bag needed no repairs. It is gleaming white leather inside. I doubt if it was used very much being that there isn’t a scratch on it. I got it an an estate sale for a very good price because the kids selling it thought it was terribly out of style. I offered $10 and they accepted. I got it home and I liked it but it did remind me of my grandma! She always says “Get me my handbag, Dear…” and it is huge black bag quite similar to this full of everything under the sun. It weighs a ton the way she packs it up. She takes it to town sitting on the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and it gets her through the day! It gets its own seat. She would never put it on the floor. It gets its own chair at restaurants too! That is how large and important it is to her.
Anyway, for days when I have to carry around 50 pounds of daily gear myself, I now have this bag to remind me of my Grandma! I wanted to jazz it up though which is why I tied on this perfect for spring shiny black silk square scarf in a big pink dahlia print. I wear a lot of pink and this ties it all together with the shiny black bag and black patent leather pumps. The scarf brings the giant bag up to date and gives it a now fashionable Mad Men Style vibe. I can see Joan Henderson carrying this to the office in one of her bright pink wiggle dresses circa 1960. The scarf choice is perfect for this bag as it also has little jacquard polka dots in black on black which you can just barely see in this photograph.
I simply tied this large silk square scarf in a self knot loop pulling the ends through once and let the silken tails flow long and gracefully down to the front on one side. Tying a scarf to your bag makes you more conscious of how you tote your purse and forces you to behave in a more ladylike manner to show off the both the scarf and the bag. It is good self discipline. Like finishing school for the carrying your scarf tied purse.
Example Five: This is a beautiful late 1950’s vintage snakeskin bag from Palizzio New York. It is in good condition except that the handle is getting the same kinds of age related problems described above and will soon probably go. I am being careful with it. I will wrap the entire handle when it becomes necessary. For now I am decorating it simply with a same vintage large silk square scarf tied in a soft and sensual large floppy bow on one side.
I have a big hatbox full of vintage scarves in many shapes and colors that I ruffle through for an appropriate match to tie on my purses, baskets, in my hair or around my neck. I also use them as sashes, wrap my jewelry in them to keep it clean and safe and a bit padded, put them over small tables and sometimes drape them over a lampshade to soften the light or add a touch of color to a room with the light glowing through the colors of the scarf fabric. Scarves have a million uses! I use them to wrap bundles and presents, as bracelets and necklaces, as a sling when I broke my arm. I have even learned to tie large ones as skirts, dresses and halter tops. They make great summer wear. I love using them as shawls and stoles and as wrap around skirts. For these reasons one can never have too many of them. There is warmth in the winter months too. It always helps to have a warm scarf around your neck or a shawl draped over the shoulders of your woolen coat to make you even warmer.
I believe everyone needs an ample scarf collection. I find most of mine in thrift stores and consignment shops. I get amazingly nice ones for very reasonable prices from these sources. I look at the scarf racks every time I go into these places. I have even found really beautiful designer scarves this way. I even have three gorgeous Hermes scarves that I found in thrift stores. But, honestly, many non famous designer scarves are just as beautiful as those made by big names. I always look for cotton, silk, pure wool, Pashima, cashmere, wool challis and occasionally blends. But the natural fibers tend to produce superior bows and stay tied better. Scarves are one of the best buys you can find in thrift shops. Only yesterday I picked up 6 of them for 99 cents each. This was at least $150 worth of scarves had I purchased them as new retail merchandise. And they are all in perfect condition. I make it a practice to buy vintage only if it is clean and in very good condition. I think many scarves are given as gifts and are often not even worn. Then, when people clean out they pitch them. This is to our great advantage as vintage and thrift store shoppers because we can find real beauties for exceptionally good values. And scarves can transform your wardrobe very easily as you will have seen if you are following all my scarf tying and scarf using posts in this blog. I actually call them my transformers.
Example Six: A beautiful Snakeskin bag from Palizzio’s Very New York collection circa 1950’s in a black and brown combination with gold hardware. The handle on this purse was completely damaged – broken, cracked. unusable. I removed it and replaced it with a narrow vintage belt, then pulled a long chiffon print scarf through the ring on one side and braided it around the belt from one side to the other completely concealing the supporting structure of the underlying belt in the wrapped fabric. I did a two strand braid using the belt as the third braid strand. You will be able to figure that out if you know how to braid using three strands. Just start in and the method will become apparent as you work. When I got to the end of wrapping the handle I tied what was left into the bow at the side and additionally embellished it with a butterfly brooch. The Butterfly looks like he just flew in and landed on the flowered scarf! The scarf I used here is silk chiffon 76″ long x 18 ‘ wide. It has a black background and is printed with yellow, medium blue, cream and red accents in stylized flower and paisley patterns.
As far as what types of scarves to use for each bag and handle, this is pretty hard to advise without seeing the purse you intend to wrap and the selection of scarves you have at your disposal. I can suggest that you will need to use large scarves as the wrapping, braiding and tying uses up a lot of fabric. As I was beginning to do this I tended to choose smaller scarves and it wasn’t always working. I would end up without enough scarf at the end to tie a nice decorative bow or streamer. The best advise I have is to experiment. And don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right with the first attempt. I have had to work at some bags with a couple of scarves to end up with one I liked to use.
I have wrapped each of these bags ahead of time so that they are ready for me to shift my contents into quickly when I want to change out my purse for a different one. That way I do not have to fiddle around trying to get a perfect wrap and bow tie job done as I am trying to rush out the door and get some place on time. I keep my entire collection of purses and bags all tied up and ready for use. I also keep my hatbox of vintage scarves all cleaned and pressed and folded at the ready for use when needed.
Example Seven: This is a very sweet small black snakeskin purse with silver hardware. It is vintage 1950’s. The original handle is still barely functional.I decided to decorate this one with a small silk 18″ square floral printed Cacharel scarf to make it ready for spring. The scarf is black with a lavender inner border and pastel flowers that resemble little violas. Some have light silky grey bits in the flowers that I think look nice with the silver accents on the bag. A plain pretty scarf didn’t seem like quite enough decoration so I added the my antique silver and onyx brooch/pendant also trimmed with sparkly marcasite stones. I am only using it this way because it has a good safety setting so I know it won’t come off and get easily lost! You could also sew a nice decorative button on over the knot if you had one you liked to use there. This handle will last awhile longer but, as you can see in the photo it is bending where the snakeskin is creasing. These are the places that show the aging effects of the drying skins and eventually break through. There isn’t really anything you can do to prevent these age related effects from eventually happening. I just recommend keeping an eye on your bag handles and silk scarf wrapping them when it becomes necessary. By no means throw out these beautiful purses just because the handles aren’t perfect any longer!
Handle repair alternatives: I looked into attaching chains to use as handles but I didn’t like the heavy metal hanging down over the snakeskin and I thought it could easily damage the rest of the purse. The character wasn’t right either, to my way of thinking, on a feminine vintage purse. I prefer the look of a soft and feminine silk scarf. I also thought about making a beaded handle and I may eventually try that. I have seen a raffia wrapped one that someone else did. She used the raffia you can purchase to use for tying up presents and making bows and wrapped the handle as I do with the scarves. She finished it off with a big poufy raffia bow and lots of extra raffia ends sticking out. She called it a festive look for hitting the clubs in Miami with her retro 50’s snakeskin bag. It would be cute with the right outfit! I am in cold Seattle and not hitting Miami clubs so I need a more day to day social, going shopping, going to work, or attending a meeting looking purse. The scarf ties on my lady like snakeskin, crocodile, alligator and leather purses work well for me with my style of vintage coats, dresses and suits. I think they look both lady like, fashionable and professional which is the look I want to pull off. I get lots of compliments on the look I achieve so I can only guess it must be accomplishing the effect I want and working out the way I want it to. What people say to you out on the streets is always a good gauge of how well your fashion choices are actually working!
In the summer I go all out tying my colorful vintage basket purses with bright and cheery scarves. I’ve shown some of those on my past blog posts and will do more as summer approaches. If you want to see all my scarf tying posts search for them on this blog. Ditto my vintage purse posts. I have done quite a few. I am always putting up more as I am a big scarf wearing fan. Everybody can learn to use their scarves. There is no reason to have them languishing in a dresser drawer or eventually giving them away to a thrift store! Get them out and use and enjoy them!
Inspiration: Here is my entire lineup of seven vintage reptile, patent and leather bags that are now tied up with vintage scarves and ready to use. Four of these had seriously damaged handles and could not be used at all until I had done them over in this way. Now they are all ready to grab and go! (By the way do not use leather cleaner on reptile bags! It ruins them. I use only a dampened with water soft cotton cloth.) Personally I really like the shapes of these purses. Again, they are so finished looking, lady like and girly. This is a perfect example of restoring, redoing, reusing and enjoying nice things from the past isn’t it?