The noughties were a bizarre cultural moment and one I have long been utterly obsessed with. What we were promised before the dawn of the new millennium was a world where all the 'progress' of the 1900s – technological, industrial, social, political, financial – would collide to create a place where cars would float and cats would be made of plastic; at midnight on 31st December 1999, capitalism, they told us, would catapult us into a whole new world. Instead we got Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer, a pink Motorola Razr and a giant tent of disappointment in the shape of a dome.
Gone were the days of the ‘90s rave scene, shoegazing bands from Sheffield climbing the charts and a New Labour promise of working class mobility, in their place a desperate aspiration to wealth. A supercharged capitalism which was as gauche as it was gaudy, and which bred perhaps the most curious of ‘00s social movements: the WAG and her It bag.
The term 'WAG' was first used by the Sunday Telegraph in 2002 to refer to the partners of the England football team: "It was never guaranteed that the wives and girlfriends (or 'the Wags', as staff at the Jumeirah Beach Club call them for short) would get along. Mrs Beckham's tongue, for one thing, has previously run away with itself." By 2006, WAG had become not only a popular acronym for these working class women who married well but also a hugely aspirational position.
The ultimate totem of the WAG was, of course, the It bag. Nothing – and I mean nothing – was more chic than a tiny-framed, giant-bag-toting woman who knew precisely zero about the offside rule. The Birkin. The Balenciaga City. The Lady Dior. The Chanel Classic Flap. Every week our magazines, televisions and dreams were overrun by a WAG in a single colour Juicy tracksuit with her matching bag.
Third-wave feminism had regressed and an impending recession meant that for many working class women (and gays), a more realistic dream than earning wealth of her own would be to marry a rich footballer: how else would we (quite literally) secure the bag? Culture lauded them as heroes or demons depending on the day, while entire television universes were built around them: WAGs Boutique (ITV2), Les Wags (France) and die WAGs (Germany), Footballers' Wives and, lest we forget, the countless punts made by individual WAGs to launch reality shows, perfumes and beauty products. All of which I was obsessed with. All of which I aspired to. Never shall we forget the moment Vicky Becks took a whole glam squad with her to get her driver’s licence photo.
We were in WAGmania and it was reported – in a grotesquely classist manner, one might add – that working class women across the country were drowning themselves in debt to achieve the ultimate WAG look. Times columnist India Knight observed: "It's as if a low-level wannabe footballer's wife vibe that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor edifying has become the norm... I saw this phenomenon en masse." Reporting her findings in a queue at the airport, Knight described these women as wearing "enough pink and glitter to satisfy the girliest of five-year-olds ... massive handbags, and huge designer sunglasses."
Among the middle classes, the WAG and her bag had become the ultimate signifier of distaste. According to a 2006 article in Style, the Hermès Birkin had, for the first time ever, fallen out of style favour because it had become so bound up with the WAG aesthetic. This is media prejudice at its best: derided for being too poor, chastised for thinking we deserved nice things. Look at Cardi B and her Birkins even today, with countless trolls accusing her and other women in hip hop of devaluing the £10,000 bag (as if being the most successful woman in contemporary music doesn't warrant you a closet full of luxury). This is reminiscent of the treatment Victoria Beckham received when she pivoted from pop star to creative director. The fashion industry's resistance to a WAG entering their world reeked of classism. "If I’d known then what I know now, I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do it," she said at a press conference in Paris last year.
Not to mention the war on fakes: remember when Danniella Westbrook (indeed not a WAG but a working class, glam icon) was papped in all Burberry everything in 2002? The legendary brand later removed the legendary check from its house code – it had become too associated with the fakes market, from which all of us were buying on our holidays abroad. Of course, some years later, the check would return with a vengeance: fashion, in its unforgiving way, decided that the totems of what it had once regarded as 'chav' culture were back in style.
Yet as always, the middle classes had misunderstood what it all meant. Sure, from a feminist perspective, WAG might be demeaning as an idea: a woman named only in relation to a man and his success (although it’s hardly like the old adage of 'marrying well' has been banished by the middle classes; it’s just that the press don’t hate them). But WAG culture was much more than gold-digging. What pundits like Knight don’t realise is that WAGs had existed among the working classes for a very long time: dressing up, looking glam, being iconic was our means of taking up space in the ways in which we were allowed to back then, before fourth-wave feminism had won over the internet.
Popular hun expert @loveofhuns decrees WAGs and their bags to be the ultimate in hun culture. "It bags are more than just an accessory to carry your items. The bags may be small but the authority and status that they hold is humongous, showing style, wealth and pride. The curiosity to what items and secrets were held within the bag keep the WAG bag mystery alive," they told me. "WAG bags are one of many signifiers of hun culture, representing fashion and high glamour. You can’t picture a noughties hun without a chunky belt, choppy highlights and an oversized Louis V over their right arm. WAG/hun culture will never be truly celebrated until there are photos of Coleen Rooney and Cheryl Cole hung in the National Portrait Gallery."
The budget versions of these designer bags trickled down to our high school playgrounds, where friends clubbed together to get their other friends Paul’s Boutique totes, or where we’d pass around a shiny Jane Norman carrier bag as if it were a Chanel Deauville tote. "It’s what we dreamed about. And why should anyone stop us?" my friend Rachel tells me when I ask her why we used to go to Manchester’s Trafford Centre every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn to blow the weekly earnings from our cash-in-hand jobs on an outfit for the night ahead. "We were proud of those girls, and we looked up to them. We wanted to feel fab."
Shopping might not have been the most financially astute decision but the impending recession mixed with a celebrity-obsessed culture meant that owning an It bag – whether it was a fake Louis V, a Paul’s Boutique or a River Island Birkin copycat tote – was a huge and meaningful status symbol that simply said, "We're doing alright".
The WAGs and their It bags meant different things to different people. It allowed the middle classes to self-separate and jump on the Tory and Labour bandwagon that demonised 'chavs' while trying to appeal to the aspirational working class person (and failed because it couldn’t see that the ultimate symbol of aspiration was the WAG). For us girls and gays of hometown glory, the It bag, and the WAG whose arm it hung off, signified a thrilling way to get what we wanted.
It bags were at the centre of the WAG aesthetic but, of course, there wasn’t a chance in hell we’d ever actually be able to afford one. So we opted for the silhouette: we went on diets and bought XXXL bags. While so much of this behaviour might now be deemed problematic, at the time it gave us so much joy to see girls like us done good, by whatever means necessary.
And so it’s not really about the bag itself. As with all fashion phenomena, it's about what the bag represents. Yes, we aspired to own Hermès, Chanel, Gucci, Fendi. But beyond the name on the clasp, all that mattered was size: the bigger the bag, the more space we could take up. In a world which is desperate to remove that space for working class women, skyscraping rollers in your hair, a pair of Ugg boots and one giant handbag meant that you were someone who deserved to be looked at the way we all looked at Mrs Beckham in her "ENGLAND ROCKS" tee.