Why American men are getting a good handbagging

Long regarded as a women-only accessory, the handbag is appealing to more and more men, especially in the US, writes Tanika White…

Long regarded as a women-only accessory, the handbag is appealing to more and more men, especially in the US, writes Tanika White.

Some call it the man bag. Others call it a murse. As proof that he was on fashion's cutting edge, Jerry Seinfeld tried to call it a "European carry-all," but in the end, he had to admit the truth.

It's a purse.

A man purse.


Whatever you call it, if a man carries one, he's bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

That's why, for so long, it's taken a brave, brave man to walk around proudly with a trendy tote on his shoulder, a fashionable clutch in his hand or a slick leather satchel strapped across his body. But now more and more American men are embracing the man bag.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, carries several different ones - a Coach bag, a Bruno Magli - and has done for more than 20 years. And none of this "man bag" business for him. His Honour just calls them purses.

"I've been carrying the thing so long, it's a part of me," Bell says. "You'll not see me without my purse." And lately, more and more men are joining the ranks - decrying the widespread notion that carrying a handbag makes a man less of a man.

These fashion-forward men say there's no reason they should be forced to carry their belongings in overstuffed trousers or coat pockets. It's just easier to toss your cell phone, PDA, wallet and keys into a handy bag, throw it over your shoulder and go, they say. And it looks better, too.

"My friends laugh at me, but I'm sorry, I don't want my cell phone and my Blackberry in my jeans. It looks crazy," says Emil Wilbekin, former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, and now vice-president of brand development for Marc Ecko menswear in New York.

Wilbekin says he owns at least 20 different man bags in various shapes and sizes, and by many high-end designers, such as Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton.

"Why I love man bags is because I can carry my journal, my Blackberry, notes, magazines, newspaper, camera and granola bars. Everything I need for a day is all in one very stylish and chic carrying case," he says. "The man bag is the modern-day briefcase. Our dads carried briefcases. We carry man bags."

Does just any old carry-all qualify as a man bag? Experts say no. To be truly called a man purse, the bag can't be placed in a briefcase, backpack, gym bag, laptop carrier or overnight bag category. A man can carry it in his hand, dangle it on his wrist, strap it to his belt or hook it over his shoulder. And here's the telltale sign: A man bag is toted around even - or, in some cases, mainly - during non-work hours. At night and at weekends. To parties, bars, sporting events. Anywhere a woman would carry her trusty pocketbook.

"We're seeing that designers are creating more of these types of smaller bags for the weekend for men," says Andrew J. Blecher, a spokesman for Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and proud owner of three man bags.

Indeed, this spring, several menswear designers - including Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Prada, Paul Smith, Miu Miu and John Varvatos - showed versions of the man purse on the catwalks.

"It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the 'metrosexual' - the guy who's well-dressed, who's well-groomed, who knows what it means to take care of himself," Blecher says.

These days, men wear jewellery and get manicures. They're using hair products, and scrubbing their faces with Clinique exfoliator.

"The lines between what's feminine and what's masculine have really blurred over the last five years," says Calie Shackleford, co-owner of Love Handles, a fashion bag company. "Men have just got a lot funkier and a lot more fun, and they take a lot more risks. I think it's really become not only practical, but sort of a fashion statement for them. I think it shows a sort of security in their manhood. It doesn't intimidate them just because traditionally they've been called purses." As the baggy hip-hop look for men is going the way of Vanilla Ice, and men's fashions are becoming more tailored, the man bag has become an attractive alternative to bulging side pockets.

If it's so practical, better-looking, and it's a powerful, masculine fashion statement, then why is the man purse just now becoming mainstream? Sort of.

"I think the manly men are a little bit nervous about being seen as girlie men," says Cordila Jochim, founder and designer of Thickskin, a New York-based company that specialises in bags for men.

Old-fashioned gender rules die hard.

Jochim says she understands the hang-up many men feel about carrying a handbag. That's why her man purses are "cool, tough-looking" bags, many made with hyper-masculine details. Hard-rocker Tommy Lee even carries one of her speciality man bags, Jochim says. It has camouflage on the inner flap. "We still want our men to be men," she says. "We don't want anything to be fluffy and light. We definitely want them to be rugged."

But like a woman's purse, men have discovered that the man bag does have drawbacks that take some getting used to. They're easily forgotten, some men say, left behind in cabs or at restaurants. If you have more than one man purse, and switch them often to match outfits, it's easy to leave something crucial such as lip balm or business cards - in the other bag.

And take heed, guys, some women give men with man purses a hard time. Maybe it's just that purses were women's domain for so long, they're just not ready to give them up to men. "I think maybe we're a little threatened that they're going to have nicer bags than we do," Jochim says. "I think it might be a little bit of purse envy."

... - Washington Post service