Can you imagine a world without handbags? Diana Vreeland, the legendary American Vogue editor once did. She came up with the idea that women should dress more like men. The keystone to her thinking was “no more handbags”. Women, she decided, should wear shirts with big pockets, jackets with big pockets, skirts with big pockets. It was all about putting the world in your pocket. She began rushing around preaching her new creed, but no one liked it (funny that).
For one thing, everyone panicked that leather factories would suffer. Others pointed out that bulging pockets would hardly improve the silhouette of their clothes and frankly, women had far more to cart around than men anyway. But what really persuaded her to back off was that handbags are such a powerful fashion statement.
Love them or loathe them, there’s little getting away from a handbag if you want to carry more than your credit card and a mobile phone. In recent decades, handbags have become a powerful sartorial statement, infinitely revealing of a woman’s life: Margaret Thatcher referred to her handbag as her “trusty companion”, while it was a “handbag” that the architect Zaha Hadid cited as the one object she travelled with to make her hotel room “feel her own”.
For better or worse, handbags have become a social signifier of who we are and perhaps who we want to be, the subject of intense consumer desire, more revealing than our choice of shoes or even our winter coat (and in recent years, certainly more expensive). They are an icon of our post-modern globalised culture, handbags are venerated and ridiculed in equal measure. The best ‘origin of a bag’ style surely goes to Louis Vuitton’s Noe which was designed in 1932 and created to hold five bottles of champagne.
The relationship we have with our handbags fascinates me endlessly. Researching ‘Handbags’ a new Vogue book, I was tickled to read that the former British Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman had once described her bag (in the context of a piece that Vicki Woods was writing) as “ vile inside with crumbling cigarettes, chewing gum, receipts and pens that leak.” I’m sure many can identify with that – I know I certainly can. And yet, as Woods herself admitted, if a man’s hand goes near her handbag – even the man she’s been married to for years – she goes into a kind of rape-alert mode and squawks. It seems that women’s handbags are public on the outside, utterly private within.
Thankfully we’re over that ridiculous era in the mid-Noughties when sales of handbags rose by a dizzying 146 percent, inspiring a period of ridiculously long waiting-lists, price tags rising north of £1000 (yes, really!) and when nothing was too blingy, logo-ed or laden down with designers hardware (a silly notion in itself and at times weighing up to 10kg). It’s when bags started to wear women (and could be spied from 50 paces) rather than the other way round.
We may no longer live in the It-bag era, but it’s foolish to think we don’t care about our handbags, we will forever have to carry around general paraphernalia and will wish to do so in plenty of style.
I love a designer bag as much as the next person (and in my life as a former newspaper fashion editor, I’ve certainly been gifted my fair share) but like the stylist Bay Garnett, I’m very partial to classic ones that look a little bit beaten up. I don’t like the idea of a bag being held up in front of the person as a status symbol. I prefer it when they look part of someone’s life and wardrobe.
The lesser known Hermes Plume style remains high on my lust list. Luckily it has inspired a rash of alternatives, notably from the highly covetable Japanese label, Art & Science. No one needs 56 bags and all in the name of research I’ve whittled the ultimate wish list (the foundation of a great bag wardrobe) down to four, maybe five styles. Bags which will last for years and see you through every outfit and eventuality.
A top handle bag or a classic stealth wealth style
This screams ‘business’ in the boardroom but is low key enough to be carted to the farmer’s market at the weekend with some degree of anonymity. Prada Galleria’s style or Anya Hindmarch’s Ebury are investments which will last for years.
The milestone/big ‘O’/first pay check bag
Mine would be Chanel 2.55, the quilted Chanel bag with its “recognisable-from- a-mile off braided chain handle” and rectangular clasp. It’s arguably the status symbol of all time when it comes to bags. And yet, it is testament to Karl Lagerfeld’s genius that he has endlessly reinvented them so that they are still the most coveted bags, worn by fashion’s inner sanctum and yet still very much desirable among CEOs, uber-coiffed Madam Chirac types and affluent mums on the school run.
A tote shopper
Something pleasingly utilitarian and for everyday which is lightweight and easily holds your gym kit, food shop and yesterday’s green juice. Alaia’s laser cut tote is dreamy, more practical perhaps on the bank balance is Mansur Gavriel, which comes in a myriad colours.
These are classic fabrics which you will wear again and again. Invest in the best quality versions you can afford. Choose wisely and be smug for years to come.
And something a little bonkers
Again a crisp packet minaudiere, Moschino’s McDonalds drink carton bag or Jimmy Choo’s pink Lockett Petite may seem highly indulgent purchases but like point four, these are actually classics: talking points at a dull cocktail party and guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face, including yours.
P.S. And finally, nothing looks more ageing than carting around an oversized, logoed bag as if it was your pet Cockapoo, worse still, while in your gym kit. Just don’t.
Vogue Essentials: Handbags, £15 Amazon.co.u
image courtesy of Jimmy Choo