LOS ANGELES — The term "carpetbagger" carries negative historical connotations, but Southern California accessories retailers and designers channeling the Civil War and Old West want to make carpetbags chic.
Michael Paradise, who is obsessed with virtually all fashions from the late 1800s, when Stronghold, the denim brand he coowns, was founded, went on a yearlong hunt to unearth facts about carpetbags. Eventually, he spotted a credible reproduction at a Wild West show where the guns have to be made before 1900 or be near-perfect copies.
"I wanted something authentic," Paradise said, gesturing toward the two styles of carpetbags he recently began selling for $295 and $235 at Stronghold's store in Venice, Calif. "Used carpets and tapestries were really sturdy. They would make these bags, and that is what people would travel around with. People had become mobile really for the first time with the railroads and stage coaches."
Today, most people's images of carpetbags come from movies set in England, where the Victorians popularized the inexpensive accessories, or the Old West. Even Jerry Tarantino, co-owner of the Victorian Traveler, based in Chino Valley, Ariz., which crafts the carpetbags — each one takes two hours — available at Stronghold, became interested in historic luggage when he and his wife, Kathy, were in the 1993 movie "Tombstone." Tarantino was a red-sashed buckaroo, and his wife was an extra.
Disappointed by the inexact look of the bags in the film, the Tarantinos set out to re-create the wide-mouthed bags that were worn by men and women and made at home or by local cobblers during the Civil War and succeeding decades.
"Our idea was a pudgy, little doctor's bag made out of soft fabric, nice handles and straps that would last a long time with nice brass buckles that would catch your eye," Tarantino said.
The Tarantinos source upholstery fabric from different mills across the country. It is typically chenille with detailed embroidery, usually in floral or shield patterns in the Victorian manner. The bags' short straps are leather, the interiors are lined with canvas to protect from wear and a wooden and metal frame is the support system.
Starting up a carpetbag business isn't easy. Elaine Thomas knew how to sew, but she had never seen a real carpetbag before establishing Carpetbag Replicas in Charlotte, N.C., in 1999.
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