An Argument for Man Purses

The world is primed and ready for men carrying bags just like we're ripe for women’s pants to incorporate utilizable pockets. Remarkably, these two entirely separate issues—both of which should be genderless—actually converge, one perhaps as the direct cause of the other. See: if pockets had been awarded to women in the first place, it wouldn't have been imperative that women carry their belongings separate from their clothing, and thus, the fashion industry—perpetually capitalizing on everyone’s desperation—wouldn’t have made carrying handbags a thing women do, and not men, and pockets a thing men should have, not women.

In Europe, from the Middle Ages to around the 1500s, men carrying these leather satchels was considered super hot. In fact, men displayed small buckle bags and girdle pouches around their waists as a status symbol. While men of low rank—and sometimes women—could wear girdles too, if they had the money, they were a requirement for wealthy men, and the more elaborate, the more prestige.  But because these bags, worn around the waist and above the clothes, were extremely sought after, they were deemed a threat to Reformation-era men. The way they were worn made "cutpurses" (get it? Because they’d sneak up and cut the ties?) a trend—crime soared in 17th century cities, people got robbed, and pockets, as we know them today, were invented.

The word “pocket” comes from the old French word “poque,” which means “bag.” This would imply a pocket—in a sense, a type of bag—should remain separate from a garment. Therefore, pockets transpired to merely a fabric pouch attached or sewn into slits in men's clothing, similar to treats men still receive today, with secret compartments in their jacket lining, etc. But with pockets came pickpockets, like Dickensian street urchins, but in legions expanding across Europe like a plague. Nevertheless, men persisted.

So, men were awarded pockets in the 18th and 17th centuries, and toting bags became redundant unless you worked in a field that required you to move or deliver things, in which you likely used a prototype of today’s messenger bag. These canvas sacks with shoulder straps were used to transfer items safely, well into the 19th and 20th centuries when bicycle and on-foot messengers did everything from delivering mail and memos to tossing newspapers onto lawns.

Men's bags have always been linked not with convenience, but to a profession. Messenger bags were for messengers, briefcases were for business or scholarly types with vital documents, doctor’s bags were for doctors, camera bags were for cameramen, and—when the World Wars eventually came—shoulder bags were employed for wartime necessities. While the purpose behind women’s handbags feels like it's always been to “conceal” stuff (as well as be fashionable), men’s bags were to show people that—as a man—you were getting shit done.
While the purpose behind women’s handbags feels like it's always been to “conceal” stuff (as well as be fashionable), men’s bags were to show people that—as a man—you were getting shit done.
In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, backpacks were introduced as an admissible, (though fundamentally genderless) 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. The Los Angeles Times 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 research firm Euromonitor International, 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 $3,600 crocodile Chanel purse, as last year, Pharrell became the first man to appear in a Chanel handbag campaign in their 108-year history. Pharrell, after the Chanel show during Paris Fashion Week 2017, said of the bag, “When I first started wearing it I didn't have anything in it. I was just so excited to have it … But now I use it to carry my phone, and—you know—essential personal things." Pharrell, however, admits to still being shy about it, which is understandable—it’s a pretty polarizing trend.
Even today—in 2018—bags worn by men are referred to as “murses,” which ironically is also a pretty strange word to label a male nurse.
Furthermore, have you seen A$AP Rocky’s handbag game? Or Skepta—arguably the U.K. Grime scene headlining champion—who’s been toting crossbody bags and bum bags for years, before they became hype? Or 2 Chainz, who recently had to defend himself against haters deeming his Goyard messenger bag as too feminine? Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug were clowned on in May for wearing pearls and a Chanel handbag in a photo of the two sipping rosè. Even NBA players have begun carrying Dopp kits and small purses everywhere, as they’ve discovered they’re necessary to holding post-game essentials, and I’m sorry, but Lebron James and James Harden can do whatever the fuck they want. At the end of the day people can hate all they want, but rappers and NBA players are making more money than you, so you’re actually the punchline, not their choice to tote their belongings in bags.

While fanny packs—which were recently given the fashion upgrade to “waist bags"—are now a universally accepted genderless style staple, they don’t count as much, do they? Men wore fanny packs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, too. However, regardless of if these things were worn in the past, a considerable differentiator between then and now is the purpose of carrying them. Bum bags aren’t just for vacations or outdoor excursions anymore, and tote bags can hold a lot more than books.

But while fashion is capitalizing and commodifying bags for men, from top-level designers like Gucci to smaller, cooler labels like Pleasures, is the media reporting on these trends hurtful or helpful? Even today—in 2018—bags worn by men are referred to as “murses,” which ironically is also a pretty strange word to label a male nurse. Labeling a bag a “murse,” chaining men to the concept that what they're carrying was initially for women, but because they're men, the language has changed (much like the godforsaken man-bun and the romp-him) is a recipe for disaster. Call it what it is—it's a bag. It's a handbag, or a purse, or a shoulder bag, or a crossbody. But it's not a murse.

It’s comfortable to make assumptions that because specific styles of bags are wildly in demand right now, men are buying totes, bum bags, and slings to merely conform to fashion trends, not to utilize the bag itself. Still, from talking to a variety of men from different backgrounds, and various professions, I can assure you that’s not the case. John Van Lieshout, food and beverage manager at Manhattan restaurant, 27, carries a Carhartt WIP sling that he says holds his “sunglasses, passports, phone charger, gum, etc.” and also uses a rotation of tote bags for his laptop and charger. None of those things could ever fit comfortably in men’s pockets, despite their depth.

Presenter Aaron W., 31, says he wears a bag “for two reasons: it's now fashionable/acceptable to rock them, and they're useful as hell.” Aaron keeps his “hair brush, phone charger, gum, vape pen, chapstick, and an extra pair of headphones” in his bag, and says it’s easy to “just grab it and go anywhere” and it “makes life easier, “ adding “I can rock shorts with no pockets on a run, take my dog to the dog park, and I don't have to worry about my phone dying when I'm out.” Practical. I love it. And there are even more practical reasons, as stated by Cartoonist Brian Santos, 23, who says he employs a “manbag” to transport medication and food necessary for a stomach condition. Santos says “normalizing” men carrying bags is making it easier for him to bring these things outside of his home discreetly without drawing attention to them.

As we culturally are seeking to destigmatize medication, whether for mental or physical health requirements, you’d imagine men would want to, you know, not carry a bottle of pills around in their back pocket. While we women don’t have pockets, we do have the luxury of tossing our birth control into what’s mostly a hidden compartment, rife with tampons and other secrets. We’ve been afforded the privacy, so it’s only natural to assume men want it too. Speaking of health, it's been acknowledged for years that men carrying condoms in their wallets is unsafe because, through friction caused by sitting on the wallet, and even opening and closing them, condoms left in wallets tend to break. So, let's practice safer sex: give your local man the gift of a bag today.

With some of the most influential rappers and NBA players partaking in bags not just as a fashion statement but as serviceable objects, without apologizing, the trend of men carrying bags—while still polarizing—is decisively gaining enough recognition to take their usage mainstream. I'm, personally, all for men carrying bags. It means if I need chapstick or hand lotion, I would actually bother to ask a dude if he has any or if I'm with a man and we stop to sit down for coffee or at a park, I won't worry if he's bored—he might just have a book on him. 

Having a bag could actually indicate you're someone who takes care of themselves—you probably take your medicine on time, read, stay adequately moisturized and you likely have cool hobbies, like writing or photography. You're also eco-friendly because, with a bag, you can go for a quick grocery run and just shove them in your bag. Leftovers? Not a problem! You can sneak snacks into the movie theater without making your girl do it. Hell, you can even shoplift now. Or... shop, at least. And have a place to stash your purchases.

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