The secret life of handbags


For many women, their handbag is more than something to carry their make-up – it’s their whole life in a leather cocoon. So what do handbags say about their owners and are they really a potent symbol of women’s emancipation, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

FOR SOME WOMEN, it provides a simple way to carry a purse, mobile phone and keys, along with a random assortment of everyday bits and pieces. But for others, the handbag is much more than that. Media commentator Yasmin Alibhai Brown may have been only slightly overstating it when she observed that handbags have become potent symbols of “politics, economics, social mobility, pre-feminist proclivities or post-feminist liberties, ethical living, advanced capitalism, the ebb of socialism and possibly the end of history”.

It’s true that the handbag can be a very public statement about the image a woman wants to project. It can be a deeply coveted object of desire, with some women going into ecstasies over Alexander McQueen clutches and Mulberry’s shoulder bag in “hot pink ostrich”. Or it can be a private repository of personal items: photographs, lucky charms, seashells, love letters – treasures that comfort or inspire. There is something intensely intimate about a woman’s handbag; in some ways, it is a microcosm of her life.

Now French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann has written a book – Le Sac, un Petit Monde d’Amour (or The Bag, a Small World of Affection) – examining the contents and the meanings of the female handbag. Having interviewed 75 women over the course of 18 months, Kaufmann concludes that, despite its frivolous image, the handbag is actually a symbol of female emancipation.

A century ago, when women’s lives revolved around domestic concerns – wiping children’s noses, feeding the hens – there wasn’t the same need or desire for statement bags. “Your trajectory was written out for you in advance,” says Kaufmann. “It’s only in the past half-century that bags have developed and got heavier. The more women have become independent, the more they have taken their bag with them every day.”

With that, though, comes the pressure to look good: one online advice guide warns darkly that “a dowdy handbag, like a bad haircut, can add 10 years to your age”.

There is something vaguely aggressive in the sharp studs, chunky straps and ornate buckles of many contemporary bags, not to mention the outsize scale of some of them.

The idea of the handbag as a symbol of power and authority, even a weapon, is not new. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was well known for using her bag as a way to discipline Tory ministers and to enforce cabinet solidarity during her years in Downing Street. The “handbagging” was not physical; rather, Thatcher produced her bag at meetings to show she meant business, or flicked through papers in it to make underlings nervous. Waiting for a cabinet meeting to begin, one minister reportedly suggested, “why don’t we start? The handbag is here.” The bag itself – a simple black Asprey, now a piece of political history – will be auctioned for charity next month, with a guide price of £100,000 (€115,000) .

While some feminists once styled handbags as tools of enslavement, it seems there is no shame nowadays in confessing to handbag lust.

Recently US secretary of state Hillary Clinton admitted that she does “love a good handbag”. Clinton said bags “could be either a great divider or uniter. I’m on the uniter side. I think no one should make fun of anyone else’s handbag choices. I have this Ferragamo hot-pink bag that I adore. My view was that I would carry it around only in spring, but it makes me so happy, I’m even now lugging it around in January. I mean, how can you be unhappy if you pick up a big pink bag?”

But while the outside is for show, the inside of a woman’s handbag is intensely private. The women Kaufmann spoke to described their bags as “a little house”, “a bit of myself”, “a puzzle in which every piece is part of my life”, or even “a memory store”. In French, the phrase “vider son sac”, to empty one’s bag, also means “to tell all”, or “to let it all hang out”, and there is an almost voyeuristic feeling about peering into someone else’s handbag.

As well as personal mementoes and everyday paraphernalia, Kaufmann found that women carry many ‘just-in-case’ items: aspirin (in case of a headache), two pens (in case one doesn’t work), or contraceptives (in case of an unexpected encounter). Often, they end up carrying comfort items – such as biscuits, wipes, bottles of water and tissues – for other people, including their children, their partners, even their work colleagues. And, given the important support role it plays, it’s not surprising that it feels like a disaster if a bag goes missing. As Kaufmann notes, “the owner feels as though she has lost part of herself.”

Some may argue, for all its public and private attributes, a handbag is just that – a handbag. But it can have a surprising ability to confer status. A friend, after years of managing with eco-friendly cloth totes, bought an elegant and expensive leather shoulder bag. Showing me the satisfying click the bag’s catch makes as it closes, she said, “I feel like I’ve finally grown up.” I don’t think she was joking.

Prayerbook, scalpel, magic wand What's in your handbag?

Barbara Lee, white witch

I like a wide handbag, because I need to carry my wand. You never know when you might need it for a ritual.

The bag I’ve got at the moment is a bit small, so the wand is poking out of the top. I carry photos of my daughter everywhere [Lee’s teenage daughter Rhiannon died in 2007] and ones of my son too, so he doesn’t feel left out. There’s four different kinds of lipstick in there, because I like to know I have a choice. I’ve got long hair, so I need a proper brush.

I take my handbag with me everywhere. I’d feel naked without it; it really is an extension of myself. I wouldn’t spend a lot on a bag. The last one I had, which I loved, was €6 from Tesco.

I see my handbag as a place where I put the things I really don’t want to lose. It is like a bottomless pit. For me, practicality takes over from elegance.

Debbie Dugan, drain engineer

I have only ever bought one handbag. I used it for a few days and it has remained under my bed ever since. I have a rucksack now, but I only use it if I have too many items to squeeze into my pockets. I just carry my mobile, my cigarettes and my lighter. I put my cards in my iPhone wallet so they don’t fall out. Everything else goes in my van. My fiancee Carol frequently gets a new bag to add to her massive collection. She’s thrown out at least 100 over the last few years. Carol would get very excited at the prospect of getting a new handbag or even just talking about it. But my attitude is, if you have a bag, you’ll fill it, and what’s the point in that?

Colette Twomey, Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year 2011

I have a little handbag – a grey leather Louis Vuitton clutch – that I keep inside a bigger, carry-all kind of bag. I am not organised at all. I either have three lip pencils and no biro, or all I can find are loads of biros!

My bag is like a portable office, but I do tend to overstuff it. I have the speech I gave when I won the award in there, all folded up. I have an appointment card for my hairdresser. I’m on the road a lot, so I need to carry things like hairspray too.
I’m always finding random things, like business cards and bits of paper with someone’s name on them.

I don’t know when I last got to the bottom of my bag. It’s like an archaeological dig: you find something and think, ‘oh gosh, I don’t remember that’.

Olivia Leigh, mother of three

I have a red patent Furla bag. It was a Christmas present from my husband, from before the recession. These days, my handbag is really more of a baby bag. I’m never without a packet of baby wipes or my daughter’s inhaler. It’s like an extension of the bathroom. There’s a diary in there too, with all the children’s various medical check-ups. I don’t even bring make-up any more. There’s one lipstick, and I’m lucky if there’s a hairbrush. Life has definitely changed.

I used to love handbags and shoes. I had a lovely collection. I used to rotate my bags every two or three months. Now it’s every year if I can find the money.

Amanda Coogan, performance artist

I’m a handbag addict. I inherited my grandmother’s handbag when she died, and I keep it in my studio. It still has her keys and her prayerbook and her purse in it. I have made a few pieces of work around handbags: I’m interested in the Freudian connections between handbags and the womb.

In a video piece called Adoration, I adored a fake Chloe handbag from New York. It was rather bold and cheeky to put the handbag in place of Jesus, but I see it as a query rather than being sensationalist. I’ll be showing a photograph, Madonna Handbag, at the forthcoming RHA annual exhibition.

The bag I have at the moment is frilly and cream. The bag has to be a certain size in order to carry my sketchbook and my notebook. Sunglasses are an absolute must, and at the moment I’m also carrying make-up, a roll of film, a scalpel and a screwdriver. Once, my mum gave me a huge red Hermès bag as a sop for being broke. It just screams ‘I have lots of money’. If you have to go to the bank to renegotiate your mortgage, that’s the one to use.