The great man-bag debate and the turning of a modern tide

“It’s not a man purse. It’s called a satchel. Indiana Jones wears one.” Alan in ‘The Hangover’, 2009.


I recently had lunch with some friends. A few years back they purchased a property in France not far from where we live. It was to be a holiday home and my husband did some work for them and following on from that we became good friends. We try to meet up at least once during each of their fairly regular visits, usually for copious amounts of alcohol under the thinly veiled guise of some interesting, stimulating and intellectual adult conversation.

On this particular occasion, my husband was away on business so it was just the three of us.

During our many and varied conversations about books, writing, travel, potential additional house purchases, food, politics, the economy, my female friend piped up that her male partner (sat opposite us) had recently purchased himself a ‘man-bag’, she tittered, finding it all very amusing. Hailing from Glasgow and having previously been in the RAF I could see that this still did not sit comfortably with him. It was, I concluded, a source of some minor embarrassment.

I know only too well the ‘social stigma’ surrounding men’s handbags. I can’t genuinely confess to fully understand why such an innocuous and practical item could be the subject of so much ridicule and debate, especially in today’s liberal society but never-the-less, it remains an accessory that is drastically under utilised by far too many men.

As a woman who likes to accessorise, I have had, since I was a small girl, an enormous array of handbags. When I lived and worked in the UK, leaving the house without my handbag would have been like leaving the house without my head. Impossible! It contained my keys, my purse, my passport, my driving licence, my phone, cheque book, notepad, pen, a hairbrush, lipstick, compact mirror, tampons, hair bobbles, pain killers, tissues, chewing gum, some Gaviscon sachets and a case containing my spectacles which I never, ever wear.

Over the years the bags have changed many times (though I favour Coach and Guess) but the contents have pretty much remained the same. To most women, these articles are considered essentials to be carried around at all times.

In fairness, since I have moved to rural France, it is now not uncommon for me to leave the house without my handbag. Well, firstly it is not all that common for me to leave the house at all, but when I do, it is often now without my handbag since I might just be going for a short walk, in which case the only things I could possibly need are my phone (in case of an emergency) and my front door key. In the case that I might be popping to the local supermarket then I add, to this very short list, my purse (though once I did actually forget that, which was slightly embarrassing when I discovered this oversight only once I had reached the checkout but that’s another story).

Anyway, in more recent years, having started to leave the house with a greater sense of freedom of not having to lug a great big handbag around with me, it actually came to my attention that it was not just me that had been making full use of this service. Prior to this, my husband would often ask if I could look after his wallet, his keys, his phone, his sunglasses; if I had any headache tablets, any chewing gum, a pen? It struck me, only once I stopped taking my bag out with me, that I was effectively his mule and I was not the only one to notice this once I started leaving my handbag at home. Requests of could I look after this, that or the other would be met with “Sorry, but I didn’t bring my handbag” and let me tell you this was actually a point of some considerable annoyance on the part of my husband. It was as if I was doing it deliberately to spite him, so dependent had he become on the fact that I ‘always’ took my handbag with me ‘everywhere’.

One time after many such occasions, I suggested that he should get himself a bag to put all of his little things in. He looked at me horrified, as though I had just suggested that he should start wearing women’s underwear and calling himself Mildred.

‘It’s just a bag” I said, shaking my head and wondering why on earth there was always so much male concern with owning such a thing, especially as I have always particularly considered my husband to be very metrosexual.

Once, on a return trip to Kent, we did go shopping for a suitable bag, one with which he would feel manly and in charge of.  We scoured the whole of Canterbury in our exhaustive search for the perfect item. Every time he veered towards the safety of the ‘rucksacks’ I would exclaim “No!” loudly and he would dejectedly drift away from them and half-heartedly look at the men’s ‘handbags’. Eventually, he did find one that he really quite liked, it was a lovely conker coloured, soft leather messenger bag or modern satchel in the Rocha range by John Rocha.  It was much larger than I had imagined he would need but I think he was deliberately trying to steer away from anything that was altogether a bit too dainty, especially as he is six foot two. The fact that it was made of supple leather and not rigid, meant that it could be used for just a few small items since it folded down a little or could also be a practical bag for larger items too, like a bottle of champagne and two glasses for instance! So having found it, tried it on, walked up and down in the shop for a while to see how he ‘felt’ about it, he decided that it was probably closest to what he wanted in all the shops that we had looked in. It was only at that point that he looked at the price tag and was shocked that it was £89. I told him that this was certainly not expensive, that it was good quality leather and that it would probably last him a very long time. He clearly needed to think about it, so we left the shop. I can’t remember what we did in the meantime, perhaps we went to a pub for a drink or we looked in some more shops, I honestly don’t recall but we did eventually return to the department store and purchase the bag but even then I could sense that there was still some reservation regards the transaction.

When we returned to our hotel he took it out of the carrier bag and stood in front of the mirror with it slung over his shoulder, turning this way and that, trying to make his mind up about it. Bless him, he emptied his various pockets and placed all his items in his bag, trying earnestly to commit to it. From then on he fondly referred to it as his ‘man-satch’ and years later, he still often says “I love my bag”. He doesn’t use it every day, of course, he still often prefers to cram his wallet and his keys in the pockets of his slim fitting jeans and carry his phone but definitely, when we are travelling or going out for a day somewhere his ‘man-satch’ will make an appearance, like an old, loyal friend. It still looks brand new, it still has that lovely leather smell to it and my husband still looks decidedly dishy and incredibly manly with or without his bag.

I imparted some of this story to my friends at lunch, again making my point that I really can not understand the social stigma of men using bags. As far as I am concerned, it is nothing but practical, convenient, logical even.

It was my friend that helpfully explained to me that it was purely on account of ‘arseholes’ like himself (his words) taking the piss out of such instances that continually propagated the humiliation attached to owning such a thing. He said that where he grew up, you would more than likely get your head kicked in for owning a man-bag and he would have been one of the first people to have been ribbing someone else about it. Up until his very recent purchase, he had assumed that bags for men, unless of course, they were a sports holdall or a rucksack or some other kind of utility bag were reserved solely for the slightly effeminate or the bearded hipster brigade. Since he, himself, falls into neither of these categories we had to conclude that he was perhaps missing a very vital and important third category and that was ‘those men whose women were entirely fed up with carrying their partner’s ever expanding essentials around for them’. When we put it like this, owning a gentleman’s bag seems entirely normal, sensible and almost chivalrous in fact.

It is now often the case that I actually ask my husband to carry things for me in his rather accommodating bag, leaving me free to leave my handbag at home and indeed rather than being ridiculed for using his bag, he has on many occasions drawn admiring glances and compliments from his friends. All completely without irony or mockery, I might add.

In fact, I note that when he first started to wear a flat cap, before they became incredibly fashionable, he would be subject to the odd sideways glance, only to find that the very people that had subtly questioned his attire had since gone out and purchased one of their very own. My husband is obviously a rather trendy and sophisticated fellow who cuts quite a dashing image and for this and for many, many other reasons it is why I will always be ever so proud to call him my husband and just occasionally, Mildred.

The Virtual Recluse

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