What’s in a Handbag? Origins, Function, And Symbolism Of A Western Handbag

  • ART & CULTURE, FASHION

I love a dress with pockets as much as the next person, but to be perfectly blunt: I’m a pack horse. A pack horse with a giant phone, and a sense for dramatic flair. I like to carry many personal items, and I like to do so while making a statement. Even if that statement is just that I’m a colourful, ridiculous human with a wicker triceratops on my arm.  

From a historical point of view, I’m not alone in my desire to lug all my crap around. For as long as humans have had personal items to carry, we’ve had something to carry those items in. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors created pouches from animal skins and plant fibres to transport tools, foods, and keepsakes. Otzi the Iceman, a mummy Mahjong Ways dating to around 3400BCE, was found with a leather pouch, sewn with sinew, and containing a scraper, drill, flint flake, bone awl, and a dried fungus. While historical examples involve different forms, construction materials and origins, they had a common purpose: to enable the carrier – or wearer – to keep important personal items close at hand. 

Over the millennia, these pouches, baskets, and bags have continually changed form; their ongoing evolution influenced as much by innovation, culture, and social status as by gender and fashion. The contemporary handbag, with its defined boundaries, smaller dimensions, and handles by which to carry it, most likely has its origins in the humble women’s pocket and VPL: that is, visible pocket line (not to be mistaken for the other visible line). For hundreds of years in Europe, women, like men, used “pockets” to carry personal items; however, unlike men’s pockets, which were sewn into their garments, women’s pockets were tied around the waist and worn beneath their skirts, the bulk of their skirts and petticoats disguising the pocket outline.  

 This changed in the late 1700s, as higher waisted gowns and slimmer silhouettes came into fashion – making it harder to disguise bulky pockets and leading to a surge in unsightly VPL. From here we see the rise of the women’s reticule: a small bag capable of carrying a woman’s fan, makeup, perfume, and dance cards. The women’s reticule was initially considered quite risqué: pockets were initially worn beneath a woman’s skirts and were therefore considered to be undergarments. To stroll the streets with one’s reticule in full view was considered to be a vulgar display of one’s underwear. The first handbags were, in effect, an early example of underwear worn as outerwear. An expression of modern sensibilities, of progress, of rebellion! By the 20th century, a handbag had become an essential item for many women; cast a glance over any mid-century western ‘wardrobe plan’, and alongside three pairs of stockings and two tea dresses, you’ll always find a bare minimum of one handbag.  

From here, we really see the development of the handbag as more than just a bag. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was said to have “weaponized” the handbag, using her handbag as a prop to declare to opponents and ministers that she meant business:  in moments of crisis or debate, Thatcher was known to slam her handbag upon the cabinet table and withdraw speech cards or notes to definitively make her point. Kenneth Baker, a former minister, wrote “[w]hen Maggie was really up against it, she would put her handbag on the cabinet table and take out a well-crumpled paper. Whenever this happened, the cabinet secretary would pale, and the minister would raise his eyes to the ceiling. Many are the ministers who have cursed the contents of that wretched blue handbag.”  The infamy of her handbag was such that “to handbag” became a verb, defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as when “(a woman politician), treats (a person, idea etc.) ruthlessly or insensitively.”   

Today, Royal Watchers and the media have made much of the way Queen Elizabeth communicates with her handbags: far more than simply a reticule for her personal belongings, the way she carries and shifts her handbags are apparently a low-key means of instructing her staff: she allegedly shifts her handbag from one arm to the other when she is keen to wrap up  a conversation, or similarly moves her handbag from floor to table to indicate when events should be hurried along.  

Daily essential, declaration of intent, means of communication, carrier of crap: the humble handbag does it all. For my own part, I love handbags – novelty handbags in particular – for the ease of wear, and the joy they bring myself and others. As a plus-sized woman, I’ve always had a fraught relationship with clothing: will clothes fit? Will they flatter? Whether it’s taking a dress to the change room or trying it on at home for the first or 15th time, there’s a constant sense of trepidation. This has never been a concern with handbags: regardless of my size, a handbag will always fit.

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