In Praise of the Handbag

30 Apr In Praise of the Handbag

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly – Cover date 24.4.23


Yesterday at the supermarket, the checkout operator stopped scanning my zucchinis to admire the bright yellow basket I’d plopped on the counter.

It is probably meant to be a beach accessory but, as I explained to (checks name badge) Monica, I bought it because summer didn’t happen up our end of the country so I had a crack at making summer happen myself with this armful of woven sunny goodness. If you imagine hard enough, a trip to the mall on a grey day feels almost tropical when you’re swinging a yellow basket in your hand.

Admiring our accessories is one of the great things women do for each other. Honestly, if men were really trying to impress us they’d stop shouting things from cars and whistling from building sites, and instead go for, “I am loving the look of your cross body tote!” Swoon.

The right bag performs a multitude of functions. Invented because some tyrant back in the 18th Century decreed women weren’t allowed pockets, the handbag is not only the bag that keeps our necessities at hand (it’s all in the name), it is also a way we express our general style and specific mood via the colour, size and shape of the bag we might choose to “wear” that day.

It’s also – by convention rather than actual design – a safe place. We can admire the exterior of each other’s handbag, but it is universally understood the interior is as private as an actual pocket.

I was memorably growled for rifling through my grandmother’s handbag when I was quite small, which impressed upon me what a personal – almost sacred – space a handbag was. I hadn’t really been going through Grandma’s stuff, except in the sense that I loved the way her fingers danced elegantly through her trove of treasures – powder compact, kid leather coin purse, handwritten letters, lace handkerchief, an inhaler… And I’d wanted to recreate the dance myself.

Handbags are my go-to travel memento (souvenirs makes them sound more affordable than they often are) to remind me of an exceptional time and place. At home, I sling them on a hat stand so they function as decorations, like a year round Christmas tree festooned with leather and fabric treasures.

It has taken me years to realise that, while I like the look of the soft floppy sack, I prefer the structure of basket-style. You can toss things into it as you run around getting ready, and I respect a bag that stays upright when you plonk it on the floor.

There are brands I like – some of which I can afford, some I can’t. I once promised myself I’d one day I’d own a Chanel bag but, realising they cost the equivalent of a good used car, I’ve decided they’re maybe not my thing.

I get the most joy out of bags that make me gasp or smile. Fun ones, like locally made replicas of the old primary school bags we grew up with. Or the evening clutch made of impossibly soft pale brown leather that looks exactly like a paper bag you’d carry your lunch in. I found it in an art gallery in San Francisco’s Mill Valley and it looks so authentic it has been disapproved of at formal dinners.

And there’s a floral velvet bag I bought months ago for a very special event this month, still waiting in its dustcover for the big day. Might swing by the supermarket on the way home, see if Monica likes it.