Bags of class – why do women love handbags so much?

What sacrifices would you have to make to afford Miu Miu’s gorgeous Coffer bag – all butter-soft leather, ruches and gold hardware, and a hefty £720?

 If you ate beans on toast for a month, could you stretch to £895 for Marc Jacobs’s delicious plum metallic Mariah?

 The It-Bag is the ultimate 21st- century object of desire, not just for supermodels and celebutantes, but for working women from all walks of life.

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These days we’re prepared to spend more on a handbag than a holiday or even a car – and we want the rest of the world to know it.

 

Clothes on the catwalk regularly take second place to this most covetable of accessories – a trend borne out earlier this year when Kate Moss starred in Longchamp’s bag campaign, lying naked on a beach, except for her Longchamp handbag.

The message was clear: clothes are redundant – it’s all about the It-Bag.

 

But why do we find bags so desirable? It’s partly because they’ve become a unique outward statement of a woman’s status, fashion savvy and earning power – and the rising popularity of handbags over the past 100 years has followed the increasing social independence of their owners.

 

Two hundred years ago, a woman’s role was largely domestic and she would keep her belongings in a purse tucked into the folds of her clothes.

But as women started leaving the home, both for leisure and work, bags became a useful way of carrying their possessions.

 

Rail and sea travel caused an explosion in the popularity of fashionable luggage such as suitcases, dressing cases, hat and shoe boxes – out of which the modern leather handbag developed.

 

It’s no accident that many of today’s most luxurious handbag design houses, such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and Hermes, originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as travel became more common. Then, as women gained financial independence, so the handbag industry flourished out of all proportion to its humble origins.

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Now a big luxury conglomerate such as LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) makes millions of pounds a year from handbag sales alone.

But the way the right bag can make us feel goes far deeper than just being a way of carrying things around.

Both revealing and concealing, it also represents something deeply private to its owner.

This stems largely from the fact that the handbag was originally developed from a silk purse or pocket worn next to the skin for safety. In times gone by pockets were classed almost as items of underwear – secret places hidden under sumptuous material and reached by a slit in the skirt.

These almost risque; connotations remained when the first prototype handbags were developed in the late 18th century in the form of reticules – exquisitely embroidered, handled pouches in damask, satin and velvet, in which a woman would could carry cosmetics, a fan for flirtation, smelling salts and cartes de visite, all without compromising the slim-line fit of the newly fashionable Empire-line dresses.

At the time, the idea of a woman parading her personal belongings in a visible pocket was as shocking to many as if she had taken her knickers off and waved them in the air – and, as a result, reticules were dubbed “ridicules” for a while.

For some time, handbags were seen as sexual items – the expression “old bag” for a woman who is past her sexual prime is a lingering part of that legacy.

These days, although they no longer have a racy reputation, they have lost none of their sex appeal and this is probably because the bag remains an accessory that is still very closely associated with all of our most intimate possessions.

A bag contains our survival kit for daily life in the urban jungle – from mobile phone, tampons, make-up, money and keys, to hair straighteners, laptops, Blackberries, chewing gum, condoms or a change of clothes.

As a result, its mystique remains intact: many men find the complexities of what women carry in a handbag thrillingly obscure and would never dare to invade its privacy.

Most women would feel naked without their handbags. And, as clothes become ever more streamlined and minimalist, it is in your choice of bag that you can make sure you stand out from the crowd.

It’s a trend which has fuelled the incredible growth of the handbag industry in the past decade. By 2006, one report showed that sales of bags were growing at twice the rate of clothes.

But with so many designer bags vying for our attention, what does it take to lift a handbag to authentic ‘It’ status?

The most obvious attribute is a striking design. An It-Bag needs to be instantly recognisable – whether it’s the distinctive quilting and gold chains of the Chanel 2.55 bag, the unmistakable underarm Fendi Baguette or the Chloe Paddington bag with its oversized padlock.

Another vital element for an It-Bag, of course, is glamour. Often this comes from the magical association between a brand and a celebrity – such as the famous Hermes Kelly bag.

First produced in 1935, it was not until 1956 that the bag’s reputation became positively stratospheric when the newlywed Princess Grace of Monaco was famously photographed for the cover of Time magazine trying to shield her pregnant belly with a classic Hermes bag.

The bag in question thereafter became known as the Kelly in her honour, and shot to global bestseller status, where it remains today.

Fashion commentators at the time were quite clear about the association of bag and star: carrying a Kelly bag screamed class and old money, both then thought to be highly desirable.

Then there was the Lady Dior of 1994 which became a sensation after Princess Diana took to sporting it around town after she separated from Prince Charles.

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A seductive combination of briefcase and luxury, with its distinctive gold charms, it proclaimed its bearer as a serious woman who was nonetheless glamorous and sophisticated.

 

More recently, an appearance on the arm of a style icon like Kate Moss can give a cutting edge to any modern bag – and Mulberry, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney have all benefited from the kudos in recent years.

 

Clever marketing inevitably also plays a vital role in creating a must-have. While Kate Moss may always be able to get her hands on the latest luxury bag, for the woman in the street it’s much more of a challenge, regardless of money.

Being unavailable is vital – with waiting lists for a high-status bag such as the Hermes Birkin stretching up to three years.

 

Women’s natural competitiveness is, of course, cleverly managed by the top bag designers. In 2005, Alexander McQueen stirred up customer demand to fever pitch when he announced the launch of his new bag, the Novak, named after Kim Novak, the legendary blonde actress who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo.

 

 

After it was announced that the bag was a limited edition with only 200 ever to be produced, starting at £550 and rising to a whopping £6,000 for the deluxe crocodile version, the Novak became the ultimate fashion trophy, selling out before a waiting list was even compiled.

 

In fact, as manufacturers have been quick to observe, ever-increasing price tags seem merely to add lustre to an It-Bag’s allure, and even seasoned observers are sometimes astonished at our seemingly endless willingness to splash out on designer bags.

 

 

Stuart Vevers, arguably the most successful bag designer of the past decade who has created a number of It-Bags for Mulberry, Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, remarked recently: “Every time I think there’s a limit within accessories or handbags, we go through another one. I remember when handbags were £500 and I thought no one would ever go above that. Now they’re well over £1,000 and there’s no sign of stopping.”

 

But while It-Bags may come and go, only a handful of handbags have the stellar qualities to become timeless.

 

 

Iconic bags are not just strikingly designed, they also transcend the time in which they were created, like the legendary Chanel 2.55, which was unveiled in 1955 (its name comes from the month and year it was launched).

 

 

Other bags I’d include in this elite field would be the Hermes Kelly, the Fendi Baguette and, more recently, Marc Jacobs’s Stam, the YSL Muse and the Mulberry Roxanne.

What all of these share are clear, clean lines – nothing fussy or over-designed – and a combination of functionality and luxury, whether it’s the soft quilting of the 2.55, the handcrafted stitching of the Kelly or the finest leather of the Roxanne.

 

An iconic bag owes its status not to canny marketing strategies, but to the finest traditions of pedigree, quality and craftsmanship to look as good decades later as it did the day it was first worn.

 

And, for a true bag-lover, that is almost beyond price.

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