The most beautiful clutch bag I own was an 18th birthday present. It’s about 20cm long, turquoise satin covered in a tactile mosaic of sequins and gemstones the size of marbles. I received it proudly, as a symbol of the life I was about to embark on as a legal adult. The party invites would follow soon, I assumed – tumbling through my door like Hogwarts letters – and off I would go with my clutch bag, into the night, both of us glittering.
I used it once, maybe twice. Too awkward to keep hold of along with my drink and my dignity. I think it ended up in a beer puddle and I stowed it away after that, to protect both the clutch bag and the idea of needing the clutch bag. It’s still there, 13 years later, in a drawer, along with maybe a dozen others I’ve acquired and barely used either. I have teeny embellished pouches and sparkling vintage purses; strokable velvet envelopes; pleather pocketbooks; the kind of miniature Borrower-sized baguettes that we used to call 'armpit warmers' at school because that was basically all they were good for. The peeling, baby pink number I’m holding in a Facebook album titled 'Oceana good timezz'. They’re all tucked away in there like an archive for the Museum of Lost Fun.
But maybe this year, they’ll get to go to the ball. Because clutches are back on the (metaphorical) table.
Admittedly it’s hard to get a grip on their return, especially since we’re living in the age of the crossbody and her fun lovin’ cousin, the bumbag. When we’ve spent the past couple of years feeling this breezily hands-free, it’s hard to see why we would trade it all in to spend the evening cradling our belongings in our arms like an infant who can’t hold its own head up. But still, fashion is determined to make us try. And after the wild sartorial cheese dream that was the tiny bag trend (which nobody can go near again since Lizzo both won and destroyed it at the AMAs, thank you oh merciful queen), clutches look almost practical again. Almost.
At A.W.A.K.E Mode they were satisfyingly squashy, rolled up and knotted like an unwieldy sleeping bag. Alexander Wang’s witty satin Lunch Bag will house a Pret sandwich but barely fit a Leon hotbox. And Bottega Veneta’s cult hit, The Pouch is a big croissant of buttery soft leather which manages to be at once achingly chic and give the appearance that you’re staying in somebody else’s house and nipping to the bathroom with your washbag. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley loves hers. Elsewhere there are vintage styles – hard shell cases, ladylike clasps, bejewelled details and maribou trims, all very Princess Margaret-goes-to-a-gala – and lots with handles and wrist straps, which are almost as useless but don’t qualify as a clutch. It’s only a true clutch if your hand looks like a misshapen claw by the end of the night.
Which night, though? That’s the big question: When do you actually use a clutch bag?
Only a handful of events in the average life feel genuinely clutch-worthy. In an informal Twitter survey where I asked 'If you own a clutch bag, how often do you use it?' only 4% of respondents said once a month or more. The rest was a fairly even split between 'a few times a year' (33%), 'once a year' (28%) and 'lol never' (35%). "I have a pink Mulberry one that I pull out of its dustbag, look at it, and put it back," replied one. That doesn’t count.
There’s no prize for guessing the most clutchable occasion in most people’s calendars. "Weddings only" comes the reply, again and again. Because however chill the dress code, however laid-back the setting, it still feels wrong to take a 'serious' bag to a wedding. Like you might get your laptop out in the middle of the vows to attend to important business. No, clutches are one of the many things we can file under 'Pointless Items Bought For The Sake Of The Nuptial Aesthetic'.
At least a clutch at a wedding feels like an appropriate level of effort. For your average dinner or drinks meet-up there’s something about using one that adds an unnecessary layer of pressure; it says "Hey Guys, Let’s Make This A Special Night!!!" when of course we’re supposed to do the opposite, pretend we’re casually dropping by for a quick one and want to get an early night, even up to the point where it’s 3am and the Uber driver is handing us back our shoes. If I’m honest, part of me believes 'party season' to be a lie made up by Big Sequin to sell more clutch bags. The only Christmas parties I’m ever invited to aren’t the kind that require tiny spangled purses, just a solid rollneck and a canvas tote to carry the Taste the Difference prosecco.
Then there’s the obvious question of where to put all your stuff. Your kit, your armoury. It’s okay for the influencers who can get the nonchalant clutch photo while a photographer trails behind with a wheelie suitcase, but how do the rest of us make a gym-to-office-to-drinks life work with a bag barely big enough for a supersize tampon?
While it’s true there’s nothing more liberating than heading off into the night with nary more than a card holder and a smile, I worry I might need my big-bag stuff. What if the evening is somehow ruined by the absence of spare tights, a notebook, a phone charger or a small pile of miscellaneous handbag sand? I remain convinced that the night I take a tiny clutch bag out with me will be the night someone runs into the bar yelling: "QUICK, DOES ANYBODY HAVE A WADDED-UP PILE OF OLD RECEIPTS WITH GUM SPIT INTO THEM? A LIFE DEPENDS ON IT!"
Still, the clutch does have a few mortal fans. It’s a "mum lifeline", one person tells me. "You can keep it in the changing bag, then whip it out to go to the shops alone (ha!) or out in the evening. I have a silver one and it makes me feel like I still have a life."
Maybe feeling like you have a life is the secret here. A fancy pouch might be impractical and try-hard but sometimes it’s nice to be impractical and try-hard. Maybe it really could be a special night!
Besides, as I get older, my bags seem to get bigger and bigger. My armoury has expanded to include Nurofen, Rennie, plasters, laptop, KeepCup, headphones, reusable water bottle and healthy snacks. I need glasses now, for god’s sake, just to read the Tube announcements, and I’ve had to switch to a backpack for my spinal health. My days of carefree clutching are slipping away like the aforementioned handbag sand.
So perhaps I need to stop waiting for the glittering invites that will never come, and create my own clutchable occasions while I can. Maybe it’s time to dust off our fancy bags and let them fulfil their true potential. Stop saving them for weddings and let them inject a little impractical razzle-dazzle into the everyday. Just wear them with jeans and a blazer, why the hell not.
And if we find one that’s big enough for a fold-up canvas tote, well, there’s a contingency plan right there.