The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity. When Lego first introduced its girl-oriented line last year, it also introduced a Lego handbag accessory. So what is it about handbags?
In many ancient cultures, the shape of the handbag represented the woman’s womb and fertility. For example, the goddesses of fertility Ubertas (Roman mythology) and Rosmerta (Gaulish Celtic mythology) are depicted holding both a cornucopia and a purse, connecting the woman’s womb-purse with the harvest. In pagan wedding rituals, coins were put inside a bride’s purse to ‘fertilise’ it.
However, women’s handbags weren’t initially designed to carry money. The reticules of the 18th and 19th centuries could fit a fan, calling cards and smelling salts – which rendered the bag as useless as its contents. And they were purposely designed to reflect lack of purpose, which placed women firmly in the ornamental domain.
Pockets of difference
It’s no wonder, then, that the feminists of the early 20th century demanded pockets. American feminists such as Alice Duer Miller and Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw women’s bags as a metaphor for sexual inequality. Perkins Gilman went so far as to imagine an Amazonian utopia where women were equipped with pockets of every size and variety, enabling them to keep their most precious possessions to hand. Particularly money. “Her own earned money, hers to give or to withhold, not to beg for, tease for, wheedle for – hers.” At that time, pockets were an obvious indicator of who was in charge of the finances.
As women gained more freedom to travel and work, the tiny reticules of the 18th and 19th centuries were superseded by bigger, more utilitarian bags, such as the Edwardian bag and the clutch bag of the 20th century.
However, despite the minimal, austere outlines of the clutch bag that appeared to embody modernity, handbags still diverged from the form-follows-function ethos of the era in favour of faux functionalist aesthetics which rendered the clutch bag entirely impractical for everyday use.
The clutch bag also boasted a feature that curiously reflected men’s sexual castration anxiety – it snapped shut. In Freud’s case histories, femininity was revealed as a recurrent source of neurosis in men. The clutch bag, with its snipping metal jaws, became a vagina dentata that evoked the fear of diminishing masculinity in the wake of women’s increasing financial independence.
The interior of a woman’s handbag has always represented the unknown. Even in contemporary viral memes, the inside of a handbag is often depicted as dangerous and mysterious territory requiring a map and torchlight.
When transparent Lucite bags appeared in the 1950s, they became associated with sexual promiscuity, as though revealing the owner’s possessions was a metaphor for flagrant exhibitionism. The clutch bag was largely abandoned in the contemporary fashions of the 60s, at which point the shoulder bag became a symbol of liberation – it didn’t stunt movement as much as its predecessors, as it allowed both hands to be free. Much like pockets.
It is telling that most of the bags you see men carrying today are either messenger bags or rucksacks. There is, of course, the notorious ‘man bag’, but the most successful examples continue to communicate function and intent over ornament. In 2013, however, women’s handbags are full of inconveniently placed zippers and pockets, making a show of functionality but delivering flash.
Sandra Mardin is a cultural detective at Flamingo, a global cultural insights agency. Illustration: Spiros Halaris.