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The Anthropology of Handbags

The Anthropology of Handbags


So why do women carry handbags and what does that teach us about the adventure of being a human?


Most of the women I know have multiple handbags and each of them has a special place, function and meaning.


There’s the one for travelling, the one for galas and red carpets, the one to feel seductive, the one to wear to the office and one or more for everyday utility. And then there’s the bag that’s not a bag: the mini-backpack which allows your hands to be completely free but has none of the awkwardness and lack of style of a rucksack.


Bags signal changes in a woman’s “emotional weather” just as changing hairstyles can do.


They also start conversations and express social currency. The famous red carpet conversational starter, “What are you wearing?” (of which the bag is an important accessory) is also a way of asking, “What discoveries have you made recently? What do you think is important in style today? What are you affirming about yourself in this chapter of your life?”


Bags are functional – they protect and transport daily essentials. But their ability to communicate so many things thereby imbues a woman’s essentials with an aura of specialness and endearment. Sometimes a new bag is an expression of hope. I love Nora Ephron’s description of how she edits her essentials when she buys a new bag, throwing out things no longer required and updating and refreshing her essentials. “This time I’m not going to collect so much clutter.” But then the ability to be complicated slowly reasserts itself and her daily bag gets a little heavier than she had hoped.


The specialness of a bag doesn’t just transfer to the daily essentials, it can be intrinsic to the bag itself, particularly a high end bag. At the top of the market, there are bags that are actually worth more ten years after their purchase.


So what does one learn about what makes us humans by studying women’s handbags? That women especially and all humans are…complicated, many-hued, expressive, endlessly social, hopeful, always in search of a bit of elevation and style.


Isn’t it amazing?



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