Arm Candy

With her collection of Lucite handbags, Suzann Miriello is sweet on the vintage accessory.

Suzann Miriello wears her art on her sleeve. She has an elegant assortment of approximately 30 Lucite plastic handbags from the late 1940s through the 1950s, and taking them with her when she goes out for an evening is one of her favorite parts of the collection. “I love having this great-looking collection that I can use, that I can show off when I go out, as opposed to having something sitting on a shelf that I can only show people when they come over,” Miriello says.

Suzann grew up in O’Hara Township, and she and her husband, David Miriello, are artists and co-owners of New Guild Studio in Braddock, which does liturgical art for churches and other religious structures. She first started collecting when she and David, an avid collector of art-deco and Machine Age design, bought their first home and Suzann wanted something of her own to display.

Lucite handbags, made from approximately 1949 to 1960 when they fell out of fashion, were originally sold in finer shops and department stores for the glamorous set, including actresses and models. Because they were a hard, molded shell, they invited an eclectic variety of shapes, from simple squares to kidney shapes, pagodas and even beehives, which Suzann once had. (More on “losing the beehive” later.)
In addition to choices in shapes, you also could select from a wide variety of colors—white, black, opalescent silver, creamy yellow, green, dark tortoise—in addition to clear. Sometimes the purses were highlighted with glitter or other embellishments within the plastic, and hand-carved clear lids were among the options.

The Lucite vintage purses are highly collectible, especially from such makers as Wilardy of New York, Llewellyn, Maxim, Rialto and Patricia of Miami, and they can be difficult to find. The name of the handbag’s maker is often marked on a paper label or is stamped onto the metal frame.

The purses usually hold up quite well, though they are susceptible to the occasional chipping, splintering, warping or melting. Yes, melting.

Which brings us back to the beehive purse. That creamy-yellow bag was one of the favorite pieces in Miriello’s collection. For some reason (sometimes caused by heat), these old purses, particularly ones in certain patterns, like stripes, or others that are less opaque, can actually “sweat” Lucite. In Miriello’s case, her beehive purse sweat to death, and it happened remarkably fast, within a few days. “It was heartbreaking—and really bizarre,” she recalls, “it just basically collapsed on itself.”

Miriello watches the rest of her handbags closely for any sign of a meltdown, and also stays on the lookout for any chance to add to the collection, which also includes earlier handbags, including one made from red velvet and a mohair model with a celluloid handle.

She’s received a few as gifts but has purchased most at local shops, estate sales and flea markets. She’s also collected several vintage compacts of the same era to go with the purses. “The purses are harder to find all the time, and I’ve gotten very picky,” Miriello says. “But when I find the right one I can’t wait to use it. People’s reactions to them are fantastic.”

Our thanks to Sandra Lawton, owner of Hey Betty! Vintage Clothing and Collectibles, 5890 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, for her help with this story.

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