Queen ELizabeth II, shown here in 2014, carries
her black handbag nearly everywhere in public. She
even signals her staff with how she positions it.
come with us, wherever we go, dangling from our
shoulders or slung across our chests. They contain a
random miscellany of objects that we deem necessary for
daily function, or that we simply want to have with us.
They are leather, canvas, nylon; small, medium,
way-too-big; pouchy, boxy, compact, cavernous. They are
our purses — and they are, in a sense, ourselves.
Herewith, an assortment of miscellaneous facts, figures
and fancies about purses, to mirror the hodgepodge
currently residing in my own.
A POCKET OR TWO
earliest purses were actually pockets — constructed
separately from garments, and tied on underneath one’s
petticoat, accessed through slits in the side seams.
These were common from the 17th to the late 19th
centuries. Reticules — very small, decorative handbags
meant to be draped over one’s arm — became popular
from the 1790s on, but many women continued to wear
pockets, as the reticule could hold very little.
very early form of the purse: the chatelaine, a
decorative hook or brooch attached to the waist of a
dress, from which chains dangle with small objects
attached. These were popular in the 19th century, but if
you look closely at Mrs. Hughes in "Downton
Abbey," you’ll see she’s wearing one (very
handy for the various keys a housekeeper needs to have
— small and often elaborate clutch bags designed to be
carried in the evening — became popular in the 1920s
and ’30s. (Straps interfered with the lines of an
elaborate evening gown.) The jeweler Van Cleef &
Arpels coined the term (supposedly minaudière means
"a coquettish air"), and manufactured their
own jeweled clutch in 1930 — inspired by socialite
Florence Gould, who on evenings out carried her
essentials in a Lucky Strikes cigarette tin.
SHE REMEMBER A TOOTHBRUSH?
handbag carried by Grace Kelly in the classic 1954
Hitchcock film "Rear Window" (the one that
holds her negligee and slippers, which she coyly opens
to show James Stewart with the words "Preview of
coming attractions") was made especially for her by
Gerard Murphy, then-president of the famed Mark Cross
leather-goods company. To this day, you can order one
just like it from Mark Cross (at $3,995), or choose one
of a number of Grace Box bags inspired by it.
TOUCH OF GRACE
is also associated with another classic bag: a large,
boxy purse from Hermès, popularly known as the Kelly
bag after the actress was frequently pictured carrying
it after her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. (It
came in handy, photos show, for discreetly concealing
her pregnancy.) It was officially christened "the
Kelly bag" in 1977, and is still manufactured.
significant bag that’s been around a long time: the
Chanel 2.55, so named because Coco Chanel first released
the design — a quilted, rectangular foldover bag, with
chain straps — in February 1955. It’s been in
production ever since. Depending on which purse-history
source you consult (there are many!), the chains were
inspired either by the nuns in the convent where Chanel
was raised (they carried keys dangling from similar
chains at the waist of their habits), or by the flat
chains Chanel’s seamstresses would sew into the hems
of their trademark suit jackets, to make the garment
BAG WORTH WAITING FOR?
its peak of popularity, the Birkin Bag (created by
Hermès in the 1980s for the actress Jane Birkin) had a
waiting list stretching several years; inspiring a
cottage industry of books and articles on "how to
buy a Birkin." (Short answer: Have a lot of money.)
Cate Blanchett’s character in "Blue Jasmine"
carried one, clutching it like a lifeline. Costume
designer Suzy Benzinger said that the bag, which was
lent for the movie, would have cost more than her entire
costume budget ($35,000).
‘ROUND THE WORLD
the world’s largest museums devoted entirely to
handbags: the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul, South
Korea; the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam
(founded by a husband-and-wife team whose handbag
collection outgrew their house); and the Esse Purse
Museum in Little Rock, Ark., which posts a Purse of the
Day on Instagram.
FOR A QUEEN
Elizabeth II not only carries her sturdy leather handbag
everywhere, but she also uses it as a communications
device: Reportedly, if Her Majesty shifts her bag from
one arm to the other while talking to you, it’s a
signal to her staff that she’d like to end the
conversation; likewise, if she puts her bag on the floor
at a banquet, it means she’s ready to leave.
THERE ROOM FOR A WAND?
bags can be magic — Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, for
example, or Hermione Granger’s beaded purple handbag
in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,"
which was infinitely expandable due to the Undetectable
Extension Charm she placed on it. My own bag frequently
seems subject to an iPhonius Disappearius Charm, in that
it sometimes seems to swallow my phone whole, just for
its own amusement.
to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb "to
handbag" was coined by Julian Critchley,
Conservative MP, with reference to Margaret Thatcher’s
ministerial style in cabinet meetings. It means to
"verbally attack or crush (a person or idea)
ruthlessly and forcefully," as in "I saw her
last week and got handbagged for 15 minutes."
IN THE BAG?
2012 Daily Mail survey of more than 2,000 women in the
U.K. found, along with the usual items (money, keys,
phone, cosmetics), some unexpected things in handbags:
10?percent of those surveyed carried chocolate,
8?percent an emergency toilet paper roll, and 4?percent
a pair of "spare knickers," just in case.
smaller-scale survey, conducted by myself while avoiding
deadlines, asked two dozen busy women a few quick
questions, via email, about their handbags. About 70
percent responded, with many taking the time to write
lengthy, impassioned paragraphs explaining exactly how
they felt about their current purse situation. (One even
sent me photos of her handbag inventory — which was,
to be fair, just two.) Among the random objects my
friends and colleagues are carrying around: fresh-sliced
deli turkey, a CD of Ravel overtures, a child-sized deck
of playing cards, a mysterious paint chip with a
lipstick smudge on it. Nobody copped to schlepping spare
this survey, I concluded that many of us are eager to
talk about our purses, to whomever will ask — because
we love them, and because they become part of us. Let me
tell you about my current bag, which is green and
gorgeous and was actually terribly expensive but cost me
next to nothing due to a great sale and some Christmas
gift cards … wait, where did everyone go?