“No single gift is tugging at the heart of a nation of women so appealingly right now as a beautiful Whiting & Davis Mesh Bag.”
Ladies’ Home Journal, December, 1923
By Donald-Brian Johnson
Photos by Leslie Pina
Mesh handbags: what accounts for their enduring appeal? Since debuting in the late 1700s, these bags have continued to captivate. Perhaps the thrill of owning one comes from the realization that there is really nothing else like it. Those expecting a material cold and metallic to the touch are pleasantly surprised by the smooth silkiness and sparkling fluidity of finely woven mesh.
The silkiest and most sparkling mesh bags first took center stage in the 1890s, courtesy of the Whiting & Davis Company. By effectively juggling the down-to-earth with the ethereal, Whiting & Davis outpaced, as well as outlasted, its competitors. Today, the Whiting & Davis name stands as a synonym for the finest achievements in fashion mesh.
Whiting & Davis was founded in 1876 as a jewelry manufacturer, with the first W & D mesh handbag debuting in 1892. However, the mesh handbag craze took off with the 1909 invention of the “automatic mesh-making machine”. Previously, ring mesh had been linked by hand – a process both tedious and expensive, as a mesh bag can contain up to 100,000 links. With automation, mesh bags were now within buying reach of the general public.
Whiting & Davis purse production reached its height during the Art Deco years of the 1920s and ë30s, and many bags reflect visual themes of the era. With the introduction of enameled mesh in the early 1920s, color ran riot in a series of vivacious Whiting & Davis “costume bags”, which resonated with unbridled energy. Not for the timid were these bags splashed with abstract geometric shapes in the brightest of hues, often accented with heavy black lines. Equally popular were bags with representational enameling – depictions of flowers, figures, birds, butterflies, scenic views, feathers, flames, and musical motifs. Trumpeted as “bags to delight all who love beautiful things”, these are among the firm’s most appealing and skillful designs.
New additions to the Whiting & Davis line were presented twice yearly for the spring/summer and fall/winter trade. Novel design twists were required to attract the repeat customer who might already have an extensive collection of mesh purses. Since the bag shape itself remained relatively standard, the challenge came in providing variety within those perimeters. When the fashionable Princess Mary of England wed in 1922, Whiting & Davis marked the occasion with the introduction of the Princess Mary, a flap bag. And, when compact bags became the rage in the 1920s, W & D responded with such creations as the Piccadilly, Delysia, and Baby Peggy.
Bag trim also individualized standard styles. It provided the fashion-conscious buyer with enhanced opportunities to select the ideal bag that would perfectly complement and complete her ensemble.
Fringe was often utilized as a bag decoration – from rings, beads, and loops, to filigree in double rows or layers. Even more lavishly enticing were mesh bags adorned with a border of metal drops. The drops came in assorted shapes (round, flat, teardrop, ovoid, and bullet) and could be coupled with fringe, or used by themselves.
Sometimes, change could be as simple as a variation in frame (W & D frame patterns eventually totaled over 1200). Popular variations included the “dome” or “cathedral” frame, introduced in the early 1920s; the dome arch gave bags greater depth, and allowed the mesh to drape more gracefully. Ads hailed it as a “creation whose unusual beauty of line is sure to find favor among discriminating women”.
Thanks to uniform standards of excellence in production, exquisite craftsmanship, and close attention to detail, a Whiting & Davis bag was more than just another purse. The purses were created of the finest available materials – from precious metals to gemstones – and sported designs by such fashion mavens as Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret. This was the handbag as jewelry: the ultimate fashion adornment.
Even at the time, Whiting & Davis bags were considered high-end: in 1923, a sterling silver Delysia was offered at the then-amazing $60. Because of this, W & D bags were heavily marketed in women’s magazines and jewelers’ catalogs as the ideal “special occasion” gift: just the right thing to provide treasured wedding, anniversary, or graduation memories. The firm even ran an ad campaign in homemaking magazines with a coupon readers could fill out and return. Forwarded to clueless gift-givers, “this subtle, but helpful suggestion will tell him what you really want,” allowing the lucky Whiting & Davis gift recipient to “walk hand in hand with fashion”.
When competitors emerged, Whiting & Davis quickly gobbled them up, and applied their innovations to the W & D line. In 1918, after Dresden, a German mesh-maker, developed an extremely fine, gauze-like mesh, Whiting & Davis bought the firm, and released its own series of “Dresden Mesh” bags. The most resilient competitor, Mandalian Mfg. Co., specialized in bags with Persian carpet-like tapestry designs, heavily adorned with metal drops and fringe. Mandalian operated independently until 1944, when it too came under the W & D umbrella.
Over the years, Whiting & Davis applied its mesh-making skills to other profitable fashion avenues, including mesh bibs, belts, billfolds, and bracelets. During World War II, the company ceased handbag production, instead manufacturing mesh materials needed for the war effort. Postwar, consumers demanded bags with the same degree of versatility (and affordability) as the newly available plastic bags. Whiting & Davis responded with simple, yet attractive day bags in goldtones, silvertones, and other solids, as well as enameled combinations suggesting animal skins and natural fabrics. Mesh was also teamed with leather, plastic, and cloth, resulting in bags with greater practicality and durability.
Over the years, Whiting and Davis mesh has remained an integral part of the fashion world. Designers including Anna Sui, Richard Tyler, Anthony Ferrara, and Inge Hendromartono have explored its possibilities. Mesh bags continue to pop up as a fashion feature focus in magazines as diversely directed as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Seventeen. Certain adjectives continually reappear: “shimmering”, “silken”, “glittering”, “gleaming”, “gorgeous”, and most importantly, “flattering”. The terms have remained as constant as the appeal of the bags themselves.
Throughout the company’s history, W & D mesh has also remained front and center in the fashion spotlight thanks to celebrity patronage. During the Deco years, such shining stars as Joan Crawford graced Whiting & Davis ads, proclaiming their fervent devotion to mesh. In 1951, Jane Russell squeezed into a form-fitting W & D mesh gown for the movie Macao. So did Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo in 1995ís To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. Ann-Margretís worn Whiting & Davis mesh. So have Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Taylor, and The Supremes. (As a matter of fact, so did Liberace, and those elephants in the Ringling Brothers Circus.) Even dolls have been immortalized in mesh: for a limited edition “Marilyn Monroe”, Whiting & Davis created a silver mesh gown. The asking price: $6,000.
Today, over 120 years since turning out its first mesh bag, Whiting & Davis is still in business, and still “the recognized symbol of quality, of service, of satisfaction”. In addition to the familiar – handbags, wallets and key chains – today’s lineup includes such 21st-century mesh necessities as an “organizer bag with cell phone pocket”.
Whether on the wall, or on the arm, Whiting & Davis handbags remain just as Ladies’ Home Journal christened them in 1929: “a new form of temptation ó a style necessity ó how can any feminine heart resist?”
More information on Whiting & Davis, its history, and its current products, can be accessed at: whitinganddavisbags.com
Donald-Brian Johnson (text) and Leslie Pina (photos), are co-authors of numerous books on mid-twentieth century design, including “Whiting & Davis Purses: The Perfect Mesh” (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.).