Friday, April 4, 2014

Big Belts, 1945

Big Bags & Belts
Life, November 19, 1945

The current revival of the big overshoulder bag and the big leather belt was started by a New York City couple named Phelps who may also be starting something new in U.S. small business. Because he liked to do handicraft work, William Phelps use to make leather belts for his wife, Elizabeth. Today the Phelpses are in the business, making huge pouches, big belts, and purse belts. 

Their business success has brought the Phelpses a tidy $1,000-a-month profit ad unlimited personal satisfaction. Mr. Phelps, a General Motors foreign manager during the 1920s, and his wife make their own designs and do a good deal of the handwork. This year, backed financially by five big department stores, they opened a small factory in an abandoned Pennsylvania church to increase their production. Looking at the Phelpses' success, some economic experts feel that many Americans can follow their example and turn handicraft skill, which abounds in the U.S., into gratifying, profitable small business.

Parachute bag of crushable shoe-calf leather is biggest in Phelps line

Postman's bag of cowhide has front pockets with American eagle.

Cowhide belt has wide plates in front and rear and slimming pieces at sides. Victorian horse's head, of metal, is used as a decoration. This belt is hand-sewn, hand-tooled, and hand-polished.

Scalloped edge on a three-inch-wide belt is a Phelps trick to flatter the waistline. The ornament, repeated around the belt, is copied from an old ordinance insignia.

Handy as a trouser pocket is this pouch of light calfskin an dark buckskin. It fastens on belt, has easy-to-get-into side opening and zippered money compartment.

Small evening bag of green suede is big enough to hold lipstick, change, keys. Its ornament is a fireman's badge. Only the slim-waisted should wear belt-bags like this.

The Phelpses figure out how many belts can be cut from one leopard skin. They employ 15 craftsman in their New York factory, 60 more in new Pennsylvania plant.

Old Metal Decorated New Leather
Much fine leather, according to the Phelpses, is ruined by slick finishes which cover the natural markings and scars and take away some of the leather's character. the Phelpses clean their leather with mild soaps, finish it with waxes and dress it with milk and eggs. As ornaments they use old metals, bits of harness, regimental insignia, drawer pulls and all kinds of decorative scraps which a professional snooper on the Phelps payroll ferrets out of pawnshops, antique stores, junk shops, and similar likely places.

Metal odds and ends like these - state crest, Polish eagle, policeman's buckle and fireman's badge - are used as decorations. Customers are urged to supply their own.

I want all of these things, holy crap. I found it interesting the war wasn't mentioned, for large leather accessories trending had to be related to leather becoming more available, right? There's a small collection of Phelps belts in the Met's collection, and they are just as drool-inducing:

(Late 1940s, found here)

(1944, found here)

 (Late 1940s, found here)

  Same belt as the Life cover! Betty Anderson, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper's Bazaar Jan. 1944 (found here)

Someone lend me a time machine, STAT.



  1. Amazing leather work. What I would give for one of those pocket type bags that fasten on to a belt. Genius!

  2. Wow - what gorgeous work! I would love to find one of those gorgeous belts or bags. The Phelps's had amazing talent.

  3. Oaa I Love all of this !
    What amazing accessories !

    I think its hard to Well-combine all of it, you must not fall in the simple thing of putting it all together... But sometimes ... Well the choice is hard !

    Lovely picture though.

  4. Faaaantastic. I feel like you could find the one with two rows of grommeted holes in a store today, it looks so modern.

  5. if it comes to wide shoulders and bold belts, the mid 40s are actually the real 80s ... ;)
    i love the decorations. so awesome.

  6. I find these to be amazing and very modern! All modern designers pull from the past -- it all has been done before.

  7. What a great article- thanks for sharing.
    Love a big belt, they pull you in and hide all those sins!
    I love how even back in 1945 they were looking to use vintage metal buckles etc and kept the utility look (cast away by other designers of the time who wanted to forget war time austerity) and forge forward after the war.
    xx Shauna

  8. Goodness gracious, great belts of fire! :D These are stop-you-in-your-tracks sensational! I love a great belt (even if wider styles do sometimes run the risk of not working well with my short, curvy figure which is anything but long waisted) or bag and these gems are some of the coolest vintage examples I've seen in a while. The Victorian horse head adorned bag in particular is calling out to me. Love!!!

    Thank you for always finding the most amazing vintage fashion articles to share with us!

    ♥ Jessica