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When men carried handbags: The history of an iconic accessory

Handbags are more than just a vehicle for self-expression. They show how power and gender roles have shifted over time.

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I’ve spent hours marveling at the secret love letter pocket in Chanel’s iconic flap bag and the eccentric tiger head on the clasp of Gucci’s Dionysus bag—and spent more money than I care to admit on the purses in my closet. I’m slightly embarrassed about my fixation with these objects, which ultimately amount to receptacles for keys and lip balm. That’s why I was so intrigued by an exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that explores the history of humans’ obsession with bags.

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[Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
Bags: Inside Out features handbags going back to the 16th century, from traveling trunks to carriers for wartime gas masks to the first-ever Hermès Birkin. It’s eye candy for bag lovers such as me, but it also tells the story of how people have ventured further and further from their homes over the centuries, requiring containers to hold their belongings. Crucially, it explores how these functional objects have come to carry deeper symbolic meaning.

Bags are portable art

For thousands of years, bags were purely practical objects. Our earliest ancestors needed to carry tools as they hunted and gathered, so they fashioned bags from animal skins and plant fibers. Egyptian hieroglyphs portray men with bags slung across their waists, and the Bible is full of descriptions of pouches.

It was only in the Middle Ages that bags morphed into a form of self-expression. Suddenly, bags were portable canvases that featured the bagmaker’s craftsmanship and artistry. In the 14th century, it became more common for people to carry ornately embroidered drawstring pouches; grooms gave their brides bags that depicted love stories as wedding gifts. “What makes them so powerful as symbols is that they are so visible on the body,” says Lucia Savi, who curated this exhibit. “We carry them at the crook of our elbow or in our hands or at the waist. They immediately tell us who we are, and who we aspire to be.”

Frog Purse. [Photo: © Ashmolean Museum/University of Oxford/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
Perhaps my favorite bag in the exhibit is one from the 1600s in the shape of a frog; it’s made from silk, metal threads, and other materials. It’s part of a broader collection of bags from this era in the shape of grapes, nuts, and small animals. Historians believe wealthy people may have used them to carry scented herbs, dried flowers, or sweet-smelling powders that could be sniffed whenever they needed respite from a world that was far smellier and less hygienic than our own.

Burse for the Great Seal of England, 1558-1603, England. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
Of course, these ornate bags were expensive, so they also conveyed the owner’s social status and identity. In the exhibit, the most dramatic version is a bag from 1558 made of silk, silver threads, sequins, and glass beads. It held Queen Elizabeth I’s seal and was probably carried by the queen’s adviser, Sir Christopher Hatton, to signal his role in the court. “It was a practical object to protect the Great Seal of England,” says Savi. “But in miniature portraits we see Hatton prominently displaying the bag as a symbol of his power.”

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Inrō with netsuke and ojime, c.1750-1850, Japan. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
The exhibit goes beyond the West. There’s a fascinating cylindrical bag from Japan, made of carved wood and bone, featuring little images of horses and landscapes. It was invented in the 1600s and was originally worn by men to carry things such as seals and ink pads. The one on display features small containers stacked on top of each other, which held medicine, including an aphrodisiac and something to calm the liver.

A sign of women’s liberation

Bags reveal people’s social status in many ways, including how much freedom they have to move in society. Many of the earliest bags in the exhibit were carried by wealthy and important men, who were far more likely to venture away from home and actually owned valuable things worth carrying. Women were more tied to the home. “We don’t need a bag when we’re inside our homes; we need them when we’re moving from one place to another,” says Savi. “So the history of bags reveals what men and women could and could not do.”

Chatelaine, 1863-85, probably England. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
Another one of my favorite pieces was made in England in 1863. It’s called a Chatelaine, which is a steel brooch designed to hang from a woman’s waist and to suspend objects she might need. This one involves 13 hanging accessories, such as scissors, a thimble, a tiny notebook, and a magnifying glass, each one beautiful and ornately crafted. It’s a beautiful, expensive work of art, but it also illustrates that even wealthy women’s worlds were relatively small.

In the 20th century, designers began creating larger bags as women were increasingly able to step out into society. Lower-class women started working in factories and needed bags to carry their things. Eventually, wealthier women got higher-end versions of these bags. The modern universe of luxury handbags is the logical extension of this trend. “Bags become bigger and sturdier,” Savi says. “They are designed to be functional and practical, but they are also invested with meaning.”

Jane Birkin’s Birkin, 1984. [Photo: Les 3 marches de Catherine B/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
Some of the most iconic bags of our time are designed to allow well-heeled modern women to go about their busy lives. Take the Hermès Birkin bag, which has a large, structured silhouette. It was created in 1984 after then-CEO Jean-Louis Dumas sat next to the English singer Jane Birkin on a flight, and she complained that she was unable to find a leather bag with enough pockets. While the Birkin is now legendary and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the secondhand market, it’s also very functional, equipped with pockets and shoulder straps so it can be worn in many ways.

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Jane Birkin’s Birkin, 1984. [Photo: Les 3 marches de Catherine B/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

The modern world

Given this history, it’s fascinating to consider how bags fit into the modern world. Handbags continue to be a status symbol and drive the luxury fashion industry. While many consumers can’t afford to buy an entire outfit from a high-end designer, they might be able to own a piece of the brand with a handbag.

Anya Hindmarch and We Are What We Do, ‘I’m NOT a Plastic bag’ tote bag, 2007, London. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
They also continue to be a form of self-expression, sometimes literally. In 2007, Anya Hindmarch created a tote scrawled with the words “I am NOT a plastic bag” to protest plastic pollution, while in 2019, Michele Pred created a leather bag emblazoned with “My Body My Business.” (These bags take a page from 19th-century bags inscribed with text promoting abolition.) But self-expression doesn’t always need to be expensive. The New Yorker tote, which comes free with a magazine subscription, has become popular among fans of the publication because it also expresses other aspects of their identity, perhaps their left-leaning politics or love of long-form journalism.

Michele Pred, ‘My Body My Business’ handbag, 2019. [Photo: Nancy Hoffman/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]
In an interesting twist, modern technology means we don’t need many objects when we leave the house: Our cell phones have made paper portfolios and larger devices increasingly unnecessary. The pandemic may well change our relationship with bags even further. Much like women in the 18th century, we’re largely homebound and don’t need to tote around countless things for a long day at the office. This will likely remain true for the foreseeable future. And yet even during the pandemic, spending data shows that consumers are continuing to buy bags of all sizes, whether they fill them up or not. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I predicted that handbags would become a thing of the past, but I was proven quite wrong,” Savi says. “People stuck at home are still thinking about the day they [will] go out again. Buying a bag was in some ways a sign of hope.”

And as someone who has acquired a large red tote bag in the midst of a lockdown, I can attest that I bought it because it was beautiful, luxurious, and made me happy. This exhibit shows that while the instinct might be frivolous and indulgent, it is also deeply human.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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