Once upon a time, men and women walked around with identical purses in which they carried their coins. Bags were functional and they were genderless. When these purses evolved, they turned into pockets sewn into clothing or worn around the waist. Then, in the 1790s, fashions changed and womenswear became more figure-hugging. Women had to go back to carrying little purses, only this time they were fashionable and decorative, much like the stylish handbag we are familiar with today. The handbag industry grew and the idea that women might actually like the practicality of pockets became irrelevant. After all, there were bags to sell.
Pockets are, of course, still a contentious issue. Who among us hasn’t bought a pair of skinny jeans with those annoying fake pocket details? But now that more and more brands are working from a gender neutral perspective, designing bags and pockets is about more than thinking within the traditional menswear/womenswear binary. "I like to think my accessories appeal to anyone," says designer Ed Curtis, whose playful totes and boulder bags are for all genders. "I can't even think of a practical reason why an accessory would need to be for any one gender. It’s only marketing that has made bags gendered. I always design clothes to be as genderless as possible."
D Mortimer created the Lez Bag, a bag for all genders, in response to the lack of options that suited their own gender identity. The Lez bag slogan is "clear bags for queer fags" and it has filled a gap in the market for non-binary and trans masc people in search of a stylish bag that isn't ultra-feminine. It’s also popular among queer femmes because nothing says "I’m queer, actually" like walking around with a carabiner attached to your bag. The Lez Bag’s cross-body style and understated design mean it’s essentially genderless.
"The Lez bag is not constructed for a binary gender market," says D. "I wanted to make something that didn’t have a cis-geared gender in mind when I was producing. I made it because there was a complete dearth of options for handbags that spoke to my gender identity. I hate using the word handbag. I don’t think the Lez Bag is a handbag. It’s a Lez Bag."
Handbag is certainly a loaded word. Its feminine implications are so entrenched that when a man deigns to carry a similar style, we no longer call it a handbag but a 'manbag'. This word gained popularity in the '90s off the back of an episode of Friends in which Joey buys a leather tote then starts acting more feminine – because handbags and femininity are both so laughable, right? Since then, designers have played around with the term, blurring the line between handbag and manbag.
But the genderless bag isn’t all about cis men carrying handbags. In 2020, it means much more than that. As our social understandings of gender are shifting, so is our approach to style. You only have to look at Telfar, with its cult bag du jour popular among all genders, to see this shift in action. After all, there’s really no reason why bags can’t be genderless. We all have stuff we need to carry – especially now that phones are getting bigger again – and in a pandemic, we're packing hand sanitiser, face masks and latex gloves every time we leave the house.
Fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell suggests that when it comes to gendering bags, what goes in them is as important as what they look like. "Utility bags are certainly genderless," she says. "The things that go in them are genderless as well. These bags aren’t for carrying your lipstick and your purse and your keys. They’re for carrying your laptop or carrying your water bottle and things like that aren’t really specific to gender."
"Men carrying a large bag versus men carrying a small bag are two very different things," she continues. "A man carries a large bag for a reason. If it's something small he generally has pockets to put it in, for a wallet or sunglasses or keys, whereas a woman might not. Size matters. You need strength to carry a large bag, for example, so there's less of a stigma against that." Since the plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015, canvas shopping bags have been on their way to becoming a unisex accessory but not without some resistance. Last year it was reported that men were avoiding reusable shopping bags because they were scared of looking feminine. Fellas, is it gay to want not to destroy the planet?
In 2017 a report by Mintel found that nearly a quarter of British men aged 16 to 34 had purchased a manbag. This was up from just 16% the year before. Kimberly links the manbag’s growing popularity with changes in men’s fashion and lifestyle. "We've seen menswear get much tighter, more body conscious," she explains. "Men are wearing skinny jeans and showing off their bodies and going to the gym so they can do that. You don't want to ruin a really beautifully tailored pair of tight pants with stuff in your pockets so that too has made bags more accessible and more popular for men."
Major fashion brands are playing along. Dior’s Menswear 2021 Resort collection featured saddle bags and clutches alongside more traditionally masculine rucksacks and briefcases. The classic Dior saddle bag was introduced to the brand’s menswear line – with a chunkier cross-body strap to make it look more 'masculine' – in the early 2000s and has proven extremely popular, suggesting that men are open to purchasing investment bags too. Louis Vuitton’s Menswear 2021 Resort collection offered everything from petite cross-body bags to larger functional styles.
Genderless bags are infinite. We are still at a point where the unquestionably unisex accessory is plain and functional but there are endless ways to experiment and play around with bags and gender expression. Unless you’re spending a lot of money on a statement handbag, bags are a low-commitment way to switch up your look because you can add them to any outfit and change them day to day as your relationship with style and gender fluctuates. A genderless fashion future doesn’t take away from the gendered markers that can be so important to individual expression, especially for the queer and trans community, but it gives us all more choice to carry our valuables in the way we personally find most functional and fashionable. And that’s if you even want to carry a bag at all because, please, can we start giving women’s clothes more pockets?