The History of the It bag
It is sometimes difficult to think of handbags as anything but a necessary but oppressive burden. Our right shoulders ache daily from bearing the weight of our purses. Our left shoulders then ache from bearing the weight of our right shoulders. Carrying a bag also requires constant mindfulness. Did I leave my bag at a restaurant? Is the zipper open and my wallet exposed? Why can’t I ever find my phone?
However, as many daily annoyances as it seems to cause us, the handbag is a symbol of female empowerment because it is a fundamentally a vessel of mobility and thus, liberation. From the handbag’s first modern incarnation, the reticule, to the “it” bags of the past century, handbags symbolize the evolution of women’s movements from the confines of the domestic sphere to the public.
The invention of the reticule, a small drawstring bag with a wrist loop, signaled an inflection point for the presence of the feminine into public life. Women began carrying reticules in the late 18th century when fashion called for slimmer silhouettes. In the past, women hid their belongings in the folds of their elaborate skirts but simpler skirts could not accommodate the bulk of interior pouches so reticules were essentially freestanding pockets. In this way, the use of reticules symbolized the interior lives of women becoming externalized and the social shroud obscuring feminine life was slightly, but significantly, lifted.
Undoubtedly the most famous handbags of the last century are the Chanel 2.55 and the Hermes Birkin. While both are viewed as emblems of glamour, their origin stories are surprising in their shared utilitarian spirit. Invented in 1929, the Chanel 2.55 flap bag represents a pivotal innovation not in luxury, but in the most pragmatic of features: a shoulder strap. This revolutionary attribute liberated a woman’s hands, the instruments of creation.
The Birkin too was borne out of practical considerations. Former Hermes CEO Jean-Louis Dumas created this bag for Jane Birkin when she complained to him that she struggled to find a bag she liked that was durable and large enough to keep up with her jet-setting lifestyle. While the bag has since become infamous for its cost and exclusivity, never forget that Jane Birkin herself just wanted a bag that would hold all her stuff and enable her to move, unencumbered.
When we consider the defining “it” handbags of the last decade, it is no wonder that we struggle to think of handbags as instruments of empowerment. The Chloe Paddington, Balenciaga Motorcyle, and Fendi Baguette, laden with hardware and logos, are burdensome bags in both the physical and metaphorical sense. Always photographed nestled in the crook of some celebrity’s elbow, these “it" bags were valued primarily for their superficial appearance and association with fame.
As conversations around feminism have evolved in recent years, bolstered by the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, so too have changed our conceptions of the “it” bag. Indeed, the term “it” bag itself is falling out fashion with Google searches declining after its peak in August 2009. As women everywhere are re-negotiating the terms of their existence in the public sphere by demanding parity in leadership, they are rejecting the ornamental in favor of substance with renewed zeal.
To see this in action, one need look no further than the Mansur Gavriel bucket bags, arguably the most coveted bags in 2014. Minimal in design and branding, these bags are in fact, most readily identified by their interiors, always rendered in a contrast “pop” color. The signifier of value is thus on the interior of the handbag, its contents. The wielder of the handbag is empowered not by what she displays but what she contains.