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April 20, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why do women carry purses?

The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. In the spirit of that shared experience, we've embarked on a journey to answer all of the questions that burn in the minds of Philadelphians — everything from universal curiosities (Why do disposable coffee cups still leak?) to Philly-specific musings (How does one clean the Liberty Bell?).

Sure, men are carrying bags more and more these days, but you'll seldom spot a gal about town without a purse, clutch or handbag. This, despite the fact that we could all use some extra space for our odds and ends.

Curious as to why, we reached out to Danny Noble, professor of fashion design at Moore College of Art & Design, for an answer.

At what point did carrying a purse, or a handbag, become more common among women than men?

Bags have been around for many, many centuries. But I think it was in the 20th century when it started to become branded. It was when Louis Vuitton and Hermes and all these major brands started making bags that they became accessories, really. That’s when it changed. And it was after women went into the workforce. It really wasn’t until the turn of the century when women became more emancipated. They were working more, carrying stuff — they needed bags. Before that, it was quite different ...

They became accessories as opposed to just being something to carry stuff around in. So I think that was the turning point for handbags for women.

Men had the same problems, though. How come they didn't also carry bags at the time?

Men didn’t because women didn’t have pockets, but men did. They had a place for their keys, wallet and money in their pockets. But if you look at the history of costuming, I think neither men nor women had pockets to carry at one point in time. So they had nowhere to put anything, to carry anything. So they [both] put it into a bag of some sort. And women would carry them around their waist.

But eventually men started having pockets and that was the turning point when men no longer carried a bag.

Why didn't they just add pockets to women's clothing?

Because of the design of the clothes. At the time they developed pockets, women wore these huge, poofy skirts. There was nowhere to put a pocket. But actually, [some dresses] had pockets underneath the skirts, along the sides, where they could put stuff into them. It was actually hidden. And eventually, women would — if you look at costumes, they would tie [items to their waist]. They’d have scissors hanging from their waist; they'd tie it. Or they'd tie a bag to their waist with all their essentials inside it. So, it went from something of a necessity to something of a statement.

What’s been the most remarkable change to purses and handbags in recent years?

In recent years, it’s been the proliferation of bags. It’s phenomenal. It's become a major fashion accessory — every major brand has a bag. That’s the biggest thing. And it’s important. … 

Even men now. Bags for men are becoming a really big thing. You carry a bag, a messenger bag with your computer in it, and you want a good looking bag that’s nicely made and you want the right price-to-quality ratio for whatever you’re spending. So the reason you’re buying it, for men and women, comes on multiple levels. But men’s bags are becoming, more and more, not only an accessory but a need. Men are carrying a lot more crap around with them. I have a tote bag with a laptop and all sorts of crap I take to school when I go. It’s getting just as big for men now as women.

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