“A woman’s mind is as complex as the contents of her handbag; even when you get to the bottom of it, there is always something at the bottom to surprise you.” – Billy Connolly
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen a woman gazing into a shop window at the latest designer handbag while her partner tilts and scratches his head in utter confusion. For some, the importance of a handbag is completely misunderstood; just an excuse for a woman to travel around carrying her unnecessary possessions in a fashionable, stylish manner. But for many of us, a handbag is the beating heart of our everyday routines. We can’t leave the house without it, and when we do, we feel bare. It’s about time we rummaged through its purpose to pinpoint exactly why this is so.
Just like every story, it’s best to start at the beginning, and for a handbag, this goes back centuries, to when its sole purpose was to carry goods for means of survival. Essential ingredients and medicines from fertile fields were gathered and taken in large bags to villages of people. This was all a bag was deemed for, until it was discovered you could embellish, decorate and bejewel them.
In the 15th century, a bag with an illustration of a love story was a traditional gift from a groom to his bride, which gave them instant sentimental value, and meant women cherished them in the same way they would a wedding ring. From this point onwards, bags were regarded as precious as well as practical, and their multi-functionality provided even more of a reason for a woman to seek one.
Today, handbags have long been associated with social status and are a crucial barometer of our times. They are a form of self-expression, defining who we are and how we wish to present ourselves. “What you put in your bag is very important to you. That makes a bag very personal because in it you have a secret. A secret gives you some sort of power. Traditionally, for a woman, a bag holds the things you need for the day, but it’s also your little beauty factory, which is very important to the identity of a woman,” says Farid Chenoune, expert in the history and culture of fashion. In this sense, a handbag is a product which provides a glimpse into our lives, values, interests and personality.
Established brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermes caught on to their symbolic significance and created their own designs which rule today as some of their most iconic products. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you will have heard of the Hermes’s Birkin bag, Chanel’s classic 2.55 style and the Alexa from Mulberry. These bags sell everyday for thousands of pounds, but not just because of the brand label stamped on them. Retail and fashion consultant Robin Lewis studied the the importance of a handbag and wrote that a ‘bag sends a loud message and carries an emotional reward for those who choose to invest in one’. Designer bags are marketed as a form of empowerment and hint at the wealth of its owner, so it becomes an aspiration of ours to own one. We associate them with success, and for many women this makes their existence in our wardrobe a crucial part of how we present ourselves to others. However, the same could be argued for a pair of the best cut jeans, or gold carat jewellery. For me, there is a deeper reason as to why a handbag is so significant to every woman, and different to any other fashion item.
In 2012, it came about that a judge in court defended a case where a stolen handbag was condemned as an ‘inconvenience’. Taking into account all the possessions that would be found inside the bag, Judge Zoe Smith fought back explaining “her phone is taken, her cards, her money to get a cab is taken, her keys to the door of her house are taken so there is the fear of anyone coming to break in. It’s a terrible thing to do and girls are left stranded on their own.” This stressed the fact that a handbag is a gateway to a woman’s life, and holds in it a sense of security and safety. Our handbags help us feel organised, in control, and safe knowing our most needed possessions are tucked securely under our shoulder. A handbag has an irreplaceable connection to a woman on a personal level, that when taken away, leaves us vulnerable and fearful.
In many ways, this same connection aids our mobility. A bag allows us to travel the world, while taking little pieces of home away with us. A charm attached to our keys, a picture of a loved one inside our purse. All of this can be found inside a woman’s bag, forming the roots of where we belong and allowing us to move, travel and explore safe in the knowledge that home will always be there. So although the Mary Poppins’ bag has not yet been made a reality, we will continue to travel and overfill them with our necessities and securities.