A Look At Life: Handbags

21st June 2013

The Secret of the Handbag

Eluned Thorne

I've often wondered what tales a handbag might tell… After all, they accompany people into all manner of private places, and lurk in locations ripe for eavesdropping: under tables; on pegs; clasped discreetly under arms. They’re at board meetings; at family reunions; at funerals. They even accompany us into that last fortress of womanhood: the Ladies. I’m sure they hold as many secrets as they do odd bits of change and old tissues. I’d love, for example, to have talked to Margaret Thatcher’s Handbag (a capital H seems appropriate; I’m sure that’s what she was referencing when she used the royal ‘we’).

In fact, I can’t help thinking, despite all the negative connotations that this is going to evoke, especially in the heads of many men, that a handbag is a bit like a witch’s ‘familiar’, in that it follows you around, attaches itself to your shoulder and is an extension of your personality. I have a mental image here of the Macbeth witches circling the cauldron, hubble-bubbleing with their Prada totes held out before them like talismans. There are even bags that actually hold a familiar: think of Paris Hilton and her pint-sized dog-cum-fashion-accessory.

However, this ‘familiarisation’ has its downsides. I have to confess that I’m ambivalent about the whole concept of females with bags. While I like having all my bits and pieces safely stowed away but about my person, I don’t like the fact that the very act of carrying the handbag puts me at a disadvantage. Not only am I smaller and physically weaker than the average male, but I am also rendering myself less capable of dealing with a ‘fight or flight’ situation by having one arm/shoulder/elbow effectively hobbled by my bag. The worst kind, from this point-of-view, is the appallingly titled ‘clutch’: the small evening bag with no handle or strap that is carried in the hand that leaves its owner unable, when standing, to manage a drink and a plate of food at the same time without tucking said bag between the knees, wedging it under the armpit (where it is liable to pop out in an unseemly fashion, like the cream in a chocolate éclair) or disposing of it somewhere where it will instantly be forgotten due to inebriation. And even the name ‘clutch’ makes me think of desperation, or of someone hanging on for dear life off a cliff.

There is one sector of society that has overcome the problem, of course – the Royal Family. The Queen chooses to sport a handbag, despite actually having no need, given that she has her ladies-in-waiting to be human handbags instead. Presumably she carries one just for show, or because she gets royalties from Norman Hartnell. Or maybe she’s closer to her Olympic persona than we think and her bag contains a gun to give Daniel Craig a run for his money – now that’s an interesting thought. Prince Philip, meanwhile, has a delightfully hands-free sporran, which in reality is a kind of retro bumbag… although it mightn’t be wise to tell His Royal Highness that.

Men generally have the edge in the portability of possessions with the straightforward pocket. I’m very jealous of the fact that the cut of men’s trousers and jackets allows wallets, keys and change to disappear without silhouette-spoiling lumps and bumps, thus leaving men free to do more useful things with their arms. In pursuit of this ability to use my limbs without constraint, my bag of choice, until recently, has been a rucksack. A fashion rucksack, I add, not one selected for its durability on mountain hikes. However, there is one big drawback to a rucksack, and the clue’s in the word ‘handbag’: something that you can get your hand into. A rucksack, aka backpack, is something that everyone else can get their hand into, but you can’t. Reluctantly, I’ve just reverted to a traditional, straightforward, over-the-shoulder design. Interestingly, demand for the smart, structured style favoured by Mrs T rose by over 50% in the fortnight after her death.

Why do we use handbags? Well, it’s a strange truism that they conceal and reveal in equal measure. On the one hand, they hold all those things that we don’t necessarily want to show other people; on the other, they make a visible statement about our personality. So what does your handbag say about you? Are you a Lady Gaga, or a Lady Bracknell? A Victoria Beckham, or a David? Me, I’m not telling. Talk to my handbag.

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