It’s hard to talk about a woman’s intimate attachment to her handbag without stumbling into a quagmire of tiresome gender clichés. But what could be more private than a lady’s personal portable province? (Well, yes, there’s that… which is one of the reasons why the dictionary of historical euphemisms is packed with references to purses, “baggages”, wallets and other accommodating accessories).
In 2014 it seems positively anti-feminist to write about women and handbags, but it is a remarkable relationship. Consider how well you would have to know somebody before you unzipped theirs and had a poke around. Is there a male equivalent that doesn’t involve stuffing your hand into their trousers?
Interestingly, beyond the emetic banality of jokes about how many you actually need and whether “Essex girls” dance around theirs, the handbag has a pretty radical history. Bags replaced pockets for women as skirts became more streamlined towards the end of the 18th century. One of the reasons they were initially considered daring, or at least unsuitable for proper occasions is that they were – to some extent – underwear that had previously been concealed beneath a lady’s skirts.
In addition to this, the idea of a woman openly carrying useful things – specifically money – around was seen as rather masculine. They were also an opportunity for women to use their creativity: bags were usually a canvas for their owner’s embroidery skills. In those days, bags were known as “indispensables”.
The first “handbag” was born from another emancipating innovation: the railway. People needed to carry more items with them as they began to travel. The creation of the first handbag is usually credited to luxury leather goods company H J Cave and Sons. Harry Cave made it for a rich confectioner’s wife, providing inspiration for a young Louis Vuitton and Guccio Gucci – as well as Oscar Wilde. Cave’s much-copied tote was large enough to house a baby, thus conferring one of theatre’s all-time classic lines on Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
More than a century later, handbags are still private pockets of personal, social and even economic history. Here are a few from this season’s collections that might make a pleasant addition to your wardrobe, chosen with progress in mind, as well as personality.
The Mighty Purse is my first recommendation. It will charge your smartphone, tablet or ereader. Another kind of hands-free device is the Marc Jacobs backpack, which has an iPad-sized front pocket (as does this Asos number). Those who travel lighter might prefer a classic Plumo purse. Finally, there’s a Boden bowling bag to suit everyone. This one comes in six different colours, including navy, tan and my favourite: dazzling electric blue and pink floral print.
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