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Purses, Handbags, Pouches: Oh My!

Purse; handbag; pocketbook; pouch; clutch; evening bag; knapsack; satchel; saddlebag; hold all; carryall; backpack; attaché; valise; tote; sack; shoulder bag; change purse; wallet….

Love and marriage. PB and J. Women and purses. The two are inseparable. But how is it that women ended up constantly shackled to a bag of their stuff while men often need only to be responsible for sleek wallets that slip into their back pockets, rarely weighing them down?

Curious, I decided to do a little research on the history of the purse and why it has become a woman’s fifth appendage.

Purses made their first appearance centuries ago as a means for men to carry pomanders (scented oranges), flint and money. These were carried by wealthy gentlemen and were known as “pockets,” since actual pockets were not yet a reality. Alas, these original pockets weren’t a safe means to carry one’s possessions. Thieves could easily cut the thongs which attached them to a man’s back and run off with the entire bag.

By the 1400s, both men and women had developed an interest in carrying purses which evolved into fuller, fancier accessories, again used apparently by those who were well off. These classy drawstring bags were considered a status symbol. Eventually, though, women decided to forego fashion and wear their purses/pouches under their skirts, whether from fear of theft or to keep their hands free -- no one is sure.

In the late 1600s, men’s pants were being designed with built-in pockets. They gave up their purses, except for a small bag to hold their money which they carried in their --- where else -- pockets.

Hold my “reticule”

Women’s fashions on the other hand became sleeker again, leaving no room for the underskirt bags. The handbag was back, now sporting the fancier name “reticule,” a word you don’t hear every day.

When skirts became fuller again, fashion being as mercurial as it is, pockets again were used as a way to carry personal items. Handbags were unpopular until the early 1900s and into the 1920s when they were resurrected as a means of dealing with skimpier clothing once more.

History notwithstanding, it’s a puzzle as to why women have always felt a need to put things in a bag to carry along with them. As George Carlin used to joke, humans invented houses to hold their stuff while they go out and accumulate more. I suppose it follows that we need some sort of device to carry a particular amount of that stuff with us wherever we go, which apparently gives us some sense of security. This feeling is definitely ingrained in our psyches. When’s the last time you saw a woman without a purse or bag of some sort? That’s what I thought.

(I worked in an outpatient psychiatric unit as a secretary when Larry and I were first married. I can remember telling one of the residents about how I carried a book of matches in my purse with me so that if I was ever stuck in a cave or a dark place, they would be handy. He gave me one of those “young doctor looks” and told me where I could sign up for some counseling sessions. Guess he didn’t understand a fertile imagination.)

Flint and good-smelling oranges have been replaced in today’s purses by a multitude of items that women think they can’t live without -- even for a short drive down the street or a walk to a neighbor’s house. And sometimes that can pay off.

Most Stuff Wins

There’s a game played at baby and bridal showers that illustrates the wide variety of items we need to keep close just in case. At the party, someone will read a list of items and if they are in your purse, you get a point. The items range from toothbrushes to sewing kits to lipstick to Band-Aids to basic tools like wrenches. Wrenches? If you have to ask, you’ve never been in a situation where you needed one to loosen a bolt on something ASAP.

What does the future hold for purses? I think it’s safe to say they will continue to be found on the arms or wrists of women well into the future. Fashion will continue to dictate whether they are big or small, high tech or cutesy, small or spacious or capable of being slung around a waist and clicked on. Just like in the 1400s, today’s purses are considered a valuable fashion accessory, necessitating owning an entire collection of them rather than one sturdy, basic reticule.

More curious, handbags are being seen in the company of contemporary men who enjoy wearing slim-fitting clothing, harkening back to those fashionable days when tighter clothing meant there was no place to put a sack of your stuff. Instead, men can be seen carrying hand, shoulder or messenger bags filled with computers, day planners and iPods.

And with the popularity of cell phone belt holsters, is it really too difficult to imagine small drawstring bags riding along beside them?

By Teresa K. Flatley


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