The Feminist History of the Handbag
Lauren Friedman is the author and illustrator of 50 Ways to Wear a Scarf, 50 Ways to Wear Denim, and 50 Ways to Wear Accessories. Here, she explores the intriguing history of the handbag, and how it serves as a mirror for the fight for woman’s rights.
Perhaps it’s because they’re not “necessary,” per se, like a pair of pants or a jacket. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been wearing them about as long as we humans have walked this earth. Or perhaps it’s because they are, indeed, magical—regardless, accessories are more than just adornment. They can be talismanic, amuletic, or simply something we never leave the house without, but beneath the surface, our accessories tell an enduring story about human history and connection better than any other item we put on our bodies.
I write about this in my newest book, 50 Ways to Wear Accessories, but space limitations prevented me from diving too far into one particular accessory that tells a most remarkable story of womanhood in the Western world—an accessory whose practicality belies the deeply held cultural symbol of femininity it has evolved into. This is none other than the handbag, a vehicle of understanding a history of womankind.
Before there were totes, clutches, or pocketbooks, humans carried pouches, usually made of animal skin. By the time we arrived at the Greek and Roman periods, the size of a person’s pouch signified the carrier’s place in society. The smaller the pouch, for women and men, the higher the status; carrying nary but a few items in a tiny purse signaled that there was someone else lower in rank carrying the rest of their belongings. (Consider this the next time you see a picture of a celebrity carrying not much else besides their cellphone!)
In addition to social status, the purse was employed as a symbol for the womb. Uberitas, the Roman goddess of fertility, is often depicted carrying a purse full of seeds. Thus, purses filled with seeds and coins were gifted during Roman wedding rituals, suggesting the fertility of a bride (and her value) was tied up in those purse strings.
The early purse was initially tied to a belt or girdle and dangled next to the body, but it proved to be dangerous as it exposed one’s possessions to the threat of thieves. In response, the pouch developed into what we know of today as a pocket, retreating into the safety within a person’s clothing. By the seventeenth century, while large pockets were sewn into men’s clothes, women’s pockets were smaller, tied around the waist, and concealed under her skirts.
Her most closely held possessions were accessed by reaching through yards of fabric, entry gained only by finding the opening in the skirt to then locate the opening in the separate pocket. And while its form has slightly changed, the association of a purse to a woman’s fertility, sexuality, and gender persists, perhaps even strengthened by it’s body-adjacent location. This indelible connection turns sinister when we hear from pick-pocketer’s of the time, who describe their forays into reaching up a woman’s skirts and taking off with her purse pockets in ways that dovetail neatly with today’s language of rape culture.
By the eighteenth century, women’s fashion evolved in accordance with the European revival of Greek and Roman classicism. Mirroring the draped styles of the past, women of the middle class swathed themselves in diaphanous muslin shifts which left little to the imagination: closely following the curves, revealing the breasts, and perhaps most scandalously for the time, exposing the outline of the contents of a woman’s pockets. It’s basically an early example of today’s “VPL”, or visible panty line: the visible pocket line. Sordid was the vision of seeing the contents of a woman’s pockets traced with the eyes without actually knowing the what was truly inside.
In accordance with the discord between bulky pockets and curve-hugging dresses, the next generation of purse, the reticule, emerges. Essentially just a pocket with a string attached, it continued to carry connotations of a woman’s sexuality. Made from satin, heavily embellished and embroidered, reticules are, almost unfathomably to us today, one of the first appearances of the “underwear as outwear” trend. At the time that women begin carrying reticules, it was thought to be as scandalous as a woman lifting up her skirts to show her undergarments in public.
For an accessory to be seen as so appalling, it begs the question, how does this item act as a prism of understanding for how the carrier is viewed at this time? How does society value a woman when the simple act of her toting her belongings in a cute accessory is seen as disturbing? When a woman tucks into her satiny purse, her reticule contains an answer, a vision of how she fits into her community: she, and the contents of her purse, are to be suggested at but not truly shown, for what is inside is too scandalizing to be out in the open. She, and her purse, could be seen but not understood; out for display while still hiding everything.
So what’s inside these shocking reticules? We might recognize some of the elements from the contents of today’s purses: rouge, powder, calling cards, perhaps a fan. Glaringly absent, however, is anything representing money. Women of this age had little, if any, financial autonomy. (Remember—it wasn’t until 1974 that a woman could apply to open a credit card in her name in the United States.)
At the same time, accessories (and fashion in general) were extremely binding, severely restricting the wearer’s movements and facilities. Complicated hairstyles, constricting bonnets, bone-stay corsets, neck ruffs, teetering shoes practically impossible to walk in…even the reticule, dangling from the wrist and rendering one’s arm useless, has me reconsidering how much constriction I should willing to put up with by carrying a bag in one hand in this day and age!
The Industrial Revolution ushered in increasingly stratified, static spheres between men and women, and in doing so, governed the styles that reinforced these gender norms. The idealized man was industrious, strong, and active, his image bolstered by a female supporting cast who stayed at home, protected, pretty to look at, immobile, and silent, with no effort given to understanding her.
The era brought in different kinds of change, though. The proliferation of train travel paved the way for a new dawn of voyaging for people with disposal income. The accessory taken on this journey is the carpet bag—an ideal companion for long treks, a person could carry their belongings in it, and then use it as a blanket on overnight trips. (Although originally carried by men, the carpet bag was adopted, and perfected by a woman: Mary Poppins, whose carpet bag and umbrella are now iconic accessory looks.)
The handbag as we know it today did not appear until the early 20th century. Made from leather and structured around a bag frame with a handle, it’s arrival tellingly lined up with women actively fighting for rights, including the right to vote and access to financial autonomy. No longer relegated to accessing belongings through skirt folds or carrying a literal pocket with strings attached, it’s no mistake that women enjoyed the protection of carrying a bag that snapped safely shut as they began carrying money and accessing their own purchasing power.
Nonetheless, not all women were happy with these new handbags. Suffragettes and some of the early American feminists used the comparison between a handbag, which was notably diminutively sized, to men’s generously-sized pockets, in order to illustrate the disparity between men’s and women’s rights. In Herland, a utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915, she imagines a world where Amazonian goddesses rule, roaming the earth wearing outfits covered in pockets. This disparity between men and women’s pocket sizes still persists today.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the handbag continues to be representative of a woman’s value and her personal liberties within society. In the 1950s, the symbolic marker for a girl metamorphosing into a woman was when she acquires her first “good” handbag. By the swinging 1960s, the shoulder bag becames popular. Freeing up the hands, the shoulder bag allowed women a new freedom: the power of having both hands free. This subtle yet profound change went hand-in-hand with the revolutionary sexual rights women advocated for in the 1960s, as well.
When I first learned about this history, I must admit, it made the weight I bear in my purse feel much, much heavier. Most of the time, we don’t have a choice about what we have to carry, but acknowledging the long road to how our loads came to be held in this ubiquitous accessory can be empowering. Perhaps the most radical accessory among all our carrier-of-things choices is the fanny pack. Not only does it afford the wearer a hands-free lifestyle, but it is also gender neutral. An equal burden of the weight—what could be more revolutionary than that?
*For more information on the history of the handbag, I recommend checking out The Handbag: An Illustrated History by Caroline Cox.
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You can find 50 Ways to Wear Accessories here.
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