Friday, July 17, 2009

One Bag's Story: How to Restore Patent

Notice how I didn't say "patent leather." Because this bag, which I'm guessing dates to the late 60s-early 70s, is plastic all the way, making it "pleather," which is so much fun to say I just did, out loud.

I hadn't really thought about the difference before starting this entry, but of course all patent, while similarly glossy, is not created equal. Patent leather was created for the first time in 1818 in Newark, NJ by one Seth Boyden, who thought it would be a good idea to apply several coats of linseed oil-based lacquer to leather to improve its finish. This proved a hugely popular fashion invention. Men's formal shoes, military dress boots, and all manner of ladies' accessories took a shine to the new treatment. Patent was not only pretty, it was practical. The coating (now a thin plastic film) made the leather impervious to rain: all that was needed to remove watermarks was a quick buff with a soft cloth.

Which brings us to my wonderful Mod bag. Of pleather. Either the purely synthetic PVC, or the older Corfam, which is plastic-coated cloth.

The bag was a bargain at a fiver ($8) at my favorite local retro vendor, Jackie of Flask Walk. It was inexpensive because a bit of vintage gunge (for lack of a better term) marred the shine of the left side of the bag (see above). (Dried gunk on patent sounds repulsive but it shouldn't be a deal-killer, for it's likely to come off. Scratches, however, are difficult to impossible to erase).

To remove dried stains, a gentle swipe with some mild soap (dish soap, baby shampoo, Woolite) will clean without messing with the coating's molecules (as an alcohol- or solvent- containing product might).

Now, on to the style part. If you're buying any sort of retro bag, by all means buy cheap, as long as the bag meets the following criteria, which this one did splendidly.

1) A great shape, meaning the proportions of bag/handle/flap or clasp (if visible) work some magic on the right side of your brain.

2) Nice details (like this bag's faux tortoise handles and fab Dalíesque lips clasp)

3) A nice lining--clean (and in this case, flashy red)

So, in a nutshell. Restore your patent with a damp cloth, using mild soap if necessary, and wipe dry. If you insist on falling in love with old patent (leather or plastic) that's scuffed rather than simply dirty, you will bring back some of the gleam with a thin dab of petroleum jelly, but the results will never be quite like new.

Finally: keep any patent accessory well away from prolonged contact with heat, as this may crack the coating.


  1. Great bag! Great job on the restoration too!

  2. Thanks, G. I love restoring great old pieces--all the more when it's this easy . . .

  3. What a thoroughly handy article, thank you very much for posting this. I often buy pleather bags and will no doubt refer back to this post in the future.

    Have an awesome week ahead!
    ♥ Jessica

  4. Great tips for a great bag! Always loved patent leather in accessories :-)