From famous Hollywood handbag owners like Nicole Ritchie or Grace Kelly to the homeless bag lady, who has no name and no place, bags have power. I suggest that this power lies in their holding capacities—capacities that are both literal and symbolic.
Holding powers are dimensions of technology and material culture not yet well examined. I’m thinking about them using Zoë Sofoulis’ theory of Containment. Building on the work of Mumford & Heidegger, Sofoulis argues that containment defines both the tool or object and its function. It is about space and what space holds. She reminds us that unlike hand-tools or machines that require power to work, basic containers can function unaided, as stand-alone holding devices or conduits. As such they readily retreat to the background of our awareness, but, crucially, they are the technologies that precede all others.
Today I’m going to use Container Theory to talk about handbags, suggesting that handbags are political, and play a crucial part in helping to structure, express & define certain kinds of femininity.
The ‘Iceman’, a neolithic traveler at least 5000 years old, found in the Austrian Alps in 1991, wore a leather beltpouch that held his flints, needles and other small tools. Men and women have probably always carried small leather sacks or cloth purses for all sorts of purposes, from seed distribution to safekeeping of relics or talismans. But the handbag as we know it is a distinctly 20th Century object. The ‘age of handbags’ began in the early 1900s and is closely connected to women beginning to move more freely within the public sphere and thus to the rise of capitalism and modernity. Flaneuses (what is the plural?), window shoppers, strollers through shopping arcades, needed not only something in which to carry their money but also something to carry the items necessary to present a correct public face. So right from the start handbags were designed to carry lipsticks and mirrored compacts as well as money and keys (and in my planned larger version of this paper I talk about makeup inside the handbag too).
The handbag really came to the fore as a fashion item in the 1920s, when flappers ventured out into the social world without their mothers or male companions. Little bags became essential. Originally an upper class necessity, the handbag quickly became a symbol of women’s independence. Griselda Pollock reminds us that ‘going out in public and the idea of disgrace were closely allied’ (Vision and Difference , 1988 p. 69). The handbag announced self-sufficiency and mobility and offered some sort of protection from potential disgrace—it symbolically allowed the new woman to be wherever she wanted, unencumbered by chaperones.
It seems that like many things that are part of the performance of femininity handbags are subject to complex and contradictory feminist responses. For example, Germaine Greer asks: ‘Why do women always carry bags, and why are those bags so often heavy? Why is it that most women will not go out of the house without bags loaded with objects of no immediate use? Is the tote bag an exterior uterus, the outward sign of the unmentionable burden?’ Some of you will have noticed the current fashion for enormous handbags—it seems that the skinnier and more toned the celebrity the bigger and floppier and more elaborate her designer tote will be. Perhaps as she is more and more exposed in the media her bag gets bigger and bigger to show that she retains some secrets. And there is something taboo about the inside of someone’s bag—you shouldn’t go rummaging about in there if it’s not yours—Farid Chenoune, a curator of handbags at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, says that the similarity between an haute couture tote and a satchel belonging to an African witch is that both bags hold a secret of some sort: ‘what you put in your bag is very important to you. That makes a bag very personal, because in it you have a secret. A secret gives you some sort of power’.
I suggest that one of the things the handbag does is work as a mobile and material link between private and public: it powerfully connects domestic and civil worlds—literally bringing the home into the public and the outside world into the home, often working as a vital facilitator between the two. Margaret Thatcher’s square black bag—auctioned a couple of years ago on ebay for £100,000—is an infamous symbol of powerful and conservative ‘homemaker’ femininity literally at work in the public sphere. It is a symbol of a very specific kind of authority—one that is adamantly un-manly—Thatcher’s handbag’s role could never have been filled by a briefcase. So long as she kept that big black thing attached to her elbow she hung on to a static and respectable femininity or womanliness that allowed her to impinge on traditional masculine territories partly because it was so conservative.
The handbag can easily be seen as a sort of external womb—as a metaphor for this organ it is then about holding, storage, supply, safe passage, and transformation. Holding is neither passive nor simple. Sofoulis explains how holding is active. Her example is a jug. As a container, a little brown jug has two activities or capacities—to take in fluid, and to keep that fluid. But perhaps more importantly, these capacities facilitate a third activity—which is to give back: the jug’s purpose is to give back that which it has taken and held—its rationale is only fully realized once its contents gush out. In the same way, the handbag takes in and keeps the objects within it. And its purpose is also to give back. Unlike the jug its contents tend not to gush out, except for those embarrassing moments when we need to tip everything out in order to locate the urgently ringing phone. Rather, handbags offer us a sporadic flow of ‘gifts’ throughout the day. And really, these are gifts to ourselves, via the bag—they might be in the form of music, reading material, nibbles, drinks, money, lotions, pens and papers… there is nothing more comforting than a well-organised handbag which generously and in a timely manner offers forth its contents in order to facilitate the running of a busy day. In this way then, the handbag is a technology of containment that, in Foucauldian terms, practically assists in the care of the self.
What rests within the bag is private and personal, while its outside is like a billboard, advertising one’s place in the world. The handbag is a portable domestic lifeworld—a way to take the indoors outdoors, a way to reconcile private and public spheres. Handbags play key roles in the projection, performance, and protection of a ‘feminine’ mode of being. They are containers for the self.