The prototype of the Kelly bag, introduced around 1892, was a large bag used for holding a saddle, and was known as Haut à courroies because of its high handle. In 1923, Émile-Maurice Hermès and Ettore Bugatti designed a thoroughly simple and plain bag for Hermès's wife Julie. It was meant to fit into a car door and to allow riders to carry their saddle. In the 1930s, Hermès's son-in-law Robert Dumas redesigned it as a spacious travel bag called Sac à dépêches. It was a sharp contrast to the dominant purses of the time, which were simple, small and flat, resembling envelopes. The handbag gradually went on to become stiff and boxy.
In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock allowed the costume designer Edith Head to purchase Hermès accessories for the film To Catch a Thief, starring Grace Kelly. According to Head, Kelly "fell in love" with the bag. Within months of her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier III, the pregnant Princess of Monaco was photographed using the handbag to shield her growing belly from the paparazzi. That photograph was featured in Life magazine. A Hollywood celebrity from a wealthy Philadelphia family and married to a European monarch, Princess Grace was a fashion icon, and the handbag immediately achieved great popularity. Although the handbag instantly became known as the Kelly bag, it was not officially renamed until 1977.