Handbags: Pocket History

Unlike clothes or shoes or jewelry, handbags add nothing to a woman's appeal; no man was ever won by a beautiful Gucci slung over the back of a restaurant chair. And notwithstanding the ingenuity of designers in creating fancy clasps and adjustable straps and cunning inside pockets for cell phones, the function of a handbag could be filled almost as well by a shopping bag--with the difference that shopping bags don't tend to accumulate loose aspirin tablets, crumpled tissues and leaking pens.

The history of the handbag parallels that of the women's movement, says Winifred Gallagher, author of a small, engaging appreciation called "It's in the Bag." Purses were invented in the Victorian era, when women began to travel on their own, and widely adopted in the 1920s for stashing the new mass-produced cosmetics (and cigarettes). In the 1980s they took on a new function as auxiliary briefcases, and grew in importance as fashion accessories and luxury objects and status symbols; Gallagher notes that runway models now commonly carry a couture purse, which was rare a couple of decades ago. These qualities come together in the "It" bag for all time, the Hermès Birkin. (The "It" bag of the moment, according to Gallagher, is the Yves St. Laurent Muse.) Yours for $6,000 or more, depending on materials. Or, not quite: there's a waiting list, and it can be as long as two years.