In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, backpacks were introduced as an admissible, (though
) way to tote books to and from school, but they weren't designed for pleasure. During these decades, and into the '90s, men's messenger and shoulder bags took off as “outdoor” equipment, fanny packs became vacation obligations, and daypacks became something you'd bring on a picnic because you had to carry more than your arms allowed. Men not carrying handbags is a uniquely Western enigma, as if we in America weren’t already deluged with toxic masculinity.
reported in 2011 that China’s “alpha males” invest in designer handbags as a status symbol, comprising 45 percent of the $1.2 billion luxury handbag market in China. When the report was issued, American men were made up only 7 percent of luxury handbags in the States. In 2013, Quartz announced, through
, that “man purses” were now a $9 billion industry. That sure is a lot of money, but I’ve seen few men carrying bags like purses, so where is all the money coming from?
Primarily, it’s coming from literally everywhere but North America. Euromonitor International projected that global luxury bag sales for men would increase massively from 2013 to 2018, forecasting that around 60 percent of men in the Middle East and Africa would own luxury bags as status symbols, whereas only 40 percent of Middle Eastern and African women would. We had a few opportunities to pivot this in North America, I think, but due to three pivotal pop-culture moments that I've subjectively deemed as reasons it never occurred, we truly stigmatized men carrying bags even further. And curiously, all three incidents happened within five years of one another. So, here we go:
In 1998, when Seinfeld was near death (not the man himself, the hit television show) in its last season, an episode released called "The Reverse Peephole," in which Elaine is embarrassed by her boyfriend's glamorous fur coat. Jerry, who in this episode is frustrated he has to continually hold girlfriend #6017’s stuff for her, is gifted a “European carryall” by Elaine, who assures him that it’s not "gay" because it’s European. The rest of the characters are convinced this is a “male purse." Through a series of obviously wacky events, the episode ends with Jerry somehow enrobed in the fur coat, holding the purse on the streets of NYC, where he gets mugged and has to yell “hey, that guy stole my purse!” much to his chagrin and embarrassment. The punchline, of course, is that purses are unacceptable for straight men because they could perhaps suggest something gay is afoot, "not that there's anything wrong with that."
Fast forward one year, to 1999, and Friends decided to capitalize on the punchline of purses being “gay” for straight men too, with a similar plot-line, in an episode plainly titled "The One With Joey's Bag." In this episode, Rachel gifts Joey a shoulder bag for an audition, and the rest of the cast is beside themselves over how gay it seems, with literal quips like “That bag is definitely going to get you the part... and a date with a man.” Being “gay” by merely donning a practical shoulder bag once again became the punchline of an entire episode of a monstrously popular show, and ends with a sad Joey giving up his gay shoulder bag.
NBC asserted 76.3 million viewers tuned into the finale of Seinfeld in Season 9, long after its prime, and 52.5 million viewers tuned into the final episode of Friends, and so you can imagine this perception of handbags as emasculating plausibly struck a chord with men who'd likely been raised observing only their mothers and other women carrying bags, while their dads stuffed 17-pound wallets into their back pockets. The view numbers alone should give you a moderately strong impression of how many people watched the show and were impacted by its messages, no matter how silly—and furthermore, brazenly homophobic—they feel to us now.
Here’s the last pivotal television moment I’ll call out: In 2003, The O.C. premiered, and at the beginning of the Aughts, culture actually seemed to grow and change with the show. The O.C. changed music (quote me on it), and it profoundly influenced fashion. So, here we have Seth Cohen, the lovable dork who made nerds cool for a split second, with a messenger bag effortlessly placed over his shoulder. Abruptly, messenger bags were kind of cool, but with a bit of a caveat. You knew you were a nerd if you went into Fossil and bought a messenger bag. You knew you were no Ryan Atwood (Cohen's brooding counterpart). The O.C., by the way, had an estimated 9.7 million viewers per episode alone.
The Aughts altogether exacerbated some notably hetero trends, some of which genuinely penetrated culture. Metrosexual, a term coined
by journalist Mark Simpson in the ‘90s, went mainstream in the mid-‘00s, used to describe hot self-obsessed men who took care of their hygiene and had high-grade fashion sense (and yes, carried bags), as if that combination were equal parts unique and cool. The words’ popularity supposedly drove Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
to network TV in 2003, in which gay men essentially taught straight men how to pull themselves together, furthering the definition of “metrosexual”
from appearance-conscious men to appearance-conscious straight men, like tabloid favorite David Beckham.
But we’ve come a long way since then, so fellas, I’m here to tell you that you can proudly wear a handbag now for your personal—not just professional—belongings! Your time has come! I mean, have you SEEN Ansel Elgort’s bags? In late July, Elgort told People he and his girlfriend actually share purses now, and he gave an unabashed reason when questioned: “You can put your camera in there, your phone, your wallet. Sometimes if I’m wearing tight pants, I don’t want to put anything in my pocket. Or sometimes it falls out of my pocket.”
Let’s talk about Pharrell William’s $3,600 crocodile Chanel purse, as last year, Pharrell became the first man to appear in a Chanel handbag campaign in their 108-year history. Pharrell, after the Chanel show during Paris Fashion Week 2017, said of the bag
, “When I first started wearing it I didn't have anything in it. I was just so excited to have it … But now I use it to carry my phone, and—you know—essential personal things." Pharrell, however, admits to still being shy about it, which is understandable—it’s a pretty polarizing trend.