Slang of the past few decades has been clunky on the subject of men who care about fashion or grooming. To go shopping was to be a metrosexual. To wear makeup was to apply guyliner. If we endeavoured to explore our bodies with a trimmer, we were, ugh, manscaping. The goofiest of these portmanteaus, and one of the more enduring, involved the carryall. The murse, or the equally deplorable man bag, entered the pop-cultural conversation as a gender-normative joke: in 1998, Jerry Seinfeld’s TV alter ego, needing an alternative to his ballooning wallet, acquires a handbag (“It’s not a purse, it’s European!”); a year later, in a “Friends” episode titled “The One With Joey’s Bag”, the dopey soap opera actor struggles to give up his new accessory, even after it costs him an acting job. When he looks to his friend Rachel for advice, she stammers, “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a bag, I just . . . it’s just there are other bags, you know, that are maybe a little less, um . . . controversial.”
Of course, there’s nothing controversial, or even new, about men’s bags. They have existed in various forms — and under various noms de purse — since the Middle Ages, when we were stuffing girdle pouches with flowers and spices to counteract some of the more fetid smells of the era. By the early 1900s, with the proliferation of passenger rail travel, men were packing sturdier bags and closing them with metal clasps, precursors to the modern briefcase. There was the field bag (a canvas haversack used by soldiers in both world wars), the satchel (worn across the body and popularised by Indiana Jones) and the tote bag (notably prevalent among readers of The New Yorker). There were bags for going to work, working out and weekends.
Recently, though, we’ve seen something different. Taking a cue from the likes of Telfar Clemens, and the late Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, more and more men, of all sexual orientations, are shouldering bags with smaller, sturdier, more traditionally feminine silhouettes. Whether it’s Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert on Instagram with Chanel handbags, or Dan Levy at the Met Gala in a custom look by Jonathan Anderson with Chlamydosaurus arms and a clutch silk-screened with a work by the 1980s New York City artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, the message is obvious: if ever there was a rule book for gendered accessories, it’s been torn up and incinerated.
Julie Ragolia, a fashion stylist whose clients include Riz Ahmed and LaKeith Stanfield, thinks that bags are the next logical step in menswear’s liberation. “Gender is an outdated ascription when it comes to fashion. We’re moving toward a place where taste is the true arbiter,” she says. “Women’s purses offer greater options in terms of colour, shape and size. There’s also the simple fact of utility. If a man is carrying a few dollars and a candy bar, it seems silly that he should choose a massive bag over a petite clutch, simply because of shop floor distinctions.”
“You’re welcome!” says Raul Lopez, the creative director of the rising Brooklyn-based label Luar, whose spring 2022 It bag, a boxy style with a pair of ovoid handles called the Ana, has been carried recently by both Troye Sivan and Dua Lipa. “Thanks to designers who keep pushing the agenda of genderless garments, when men think about purses, they aren’t just identifying it with what they buy their wives or girlfriends.”
Other designers agree. As part of Dior Men’s resort 2022 collection, Kim Jones rendered John Galliano’s iconic Saddle Bag in black grained calfskin. At Celine, Hedi Slimane, long an adherent of androgyny, has released the leather-trimmed Ava bag, shaped like a croissant and covered in the house’s monogram-woven jacquard. For their so-called creative hacking in 2021, Balenciaga and Gucci each unleashed punky reinterpretations of Gucci’s Jackie 1961 bag, designed by Alessandro Michele for the label’s autumn 2020 collection and since worn religiously by Harry Styles. The autumn 2021 runways saw a stampede of men with bags: at Jacquemus (where the French designer continued his play on proportion with oversize bags and others so small they would seemingly fit a single cashew), at Thom Browne (where the designer’s dachshund, Hector, continues to be immortalised in leather), at Bode (where a chequered bag mixed bravado with babushka) and at Amiri (where a model carried one shaped like a billiards eight ball).
And yet, even the most outlandish of these bags has trouble being heard over the din of its attendant outfit. The truth is, menswear has become so jubilant, so free-spirited, so loud, that it’s hard for a bag to steal the spotlight. What was once a punch line on two of the biggest sitcoms — a dig, make no mistake, directed at any expression of manhood that dared extend past the perimeter of prime time — has become an afterthought. An elegant, practical, increasingly profitable yawn. And that’s a good thing.
“The more we can blur the lines between what is distinctively male and female, the closer we get to seeing one another as humans, to knowing each other more intimately,” says Ragolia. “Is a purse our societal or psychological saviour? Perhaps not. But steps are steps.”