The handbag as status symbol is nothing new. Ever since Fendi released the Baguette in 1997, fashion houses have vied to create the next It bag – an instantly recognisable, highly coveted accessory which sets off a buying frenzy. But it’s not just a handbag’s logo or price tag which speaks to the status of its wearer; it's also its dimensions. In fact, the shifting size of handbags can tell us a great deal about the nature of power, wealth and celebrity.
If size matters, then what to make of the nano bag, which has stubbornly stuck around for the past couple of years? The trend has been credited to Simon Porte Jacquemus and his Chiquito, a £365 piece measuring just 9.5 x 12cm, later followed by Le Petit Chiquito, which, at 5.3 x 4.3cm, offers about enough room for an AirPod. Despite the poor cost-to-leather ratio, celebrities and influencers hopped on board and soon other luxury brands were releasing miniature versions of their bags. Then, in November last year, Lizzo took the trend to new extremes by showing up at the American Music Awards with a white Valentino bag the size of an earring. Like Jacquemus and his fans, Lizzo was keenly aware of the viral potential of such a novelty item – and, sure enough, it sparked a million memes. In the age of Instagram, high fashion is concerned less with practicality as it is with creating a social media moment.
These miniature bags nod to the earliest iterations of handbags, as seen in aristocratic circles. In an article titled "A Mini History of the Tiny Purse", fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell explains that as dress silhouettes changed in the late 18th century, a lady’s bag evolved from a more wallet-like item tucked into a pocket to a small handheld 'reticule', which might hold a snuff box, a fan, sweets and tickets. Much like today, this fashionable accessory was an object of bafflement, so much so that it was soon dubbed a 'ridicule'. "It’s a fashion statement, to be sure," Chrisman-Campbell writes of the micro handbag revival, "but it also makes other kinds of statements, signaling a minimalist lifestyle, a low-maintenance personality, or, perhaps, an entourage of PAs, stylists, and servants who handle life’s baggage."
Royal women are a case in point. Although Kate and Camilla are yet to be photographed sporting a trendy nano bag, they are rarely seen toting pieces larger than a hardback book. As Chrisman-Campbell notes, Meghan’s transition from working actress to royal consort saw her swap "commoners' carryalls for dainty, handled purses" while the queen herself is loyal to Launer’s compact, top-handled handbags and has the power to provoke media hysteria whenever she opens one to pull out a lipstick or handkerchief.
Unlikely to be found in any royal handbag, of course, are snacks, hairbands, headphones and all the day-to-day paraphernalia that would require a lot more room. The average working woman (in the days of commuting, at least) might opt for a more utilitarian bag with space for a laptop, files and last night’s leftovers; most new mothers can’t leave the house without nappies, wipes, toys and a bottle. By contrast, queens and duchesses have ladies-in-waiting, nannies and other such staff to shoulder that load. Via their discreet, 'ladylike' handbags, the royals remind us that they are not saddled with reality.
In the equally out-of-touch realm of celebrity, handbag sizes have been more prone to fluctuation. Nano bags might be hot right now but in the not-so-distant noughties, celebrities and socialites favoured attention-grabbing bags the size of sports cars and with much the same intention: to broadcast one’s bank balance. Paris Hilton’s gold Louis Vuitton Miroir let us know she was loaded with as much nuance as her "Stop Being Poor" T-shirt; likewise Victoria Beckham’s rotation of brightly coloured Birkins each time she stepped out of LAX. Among the New York fashion set, the Olsen twins and Rachel Zoe favoured a less flashy palette but more grandiose proportions – a bizarre attempt, some believe, to look even thinner than they already were.
Like much of noughties fashion, the oversized look didn’t endure. Rather, with the return of pared back '90s style has come a more streamlined shape – think By Far’s Rachel, Celine’s Ava or Prada’s Re-Edition 2000, all of which have been photographed on the likes of Kaia, Bella and Kendall. Like every It bag, these pieces are on-trend and expensive but their compact size and short shoulder strap doesn’t detract from one’s outfit or, more importantly, one’s figure. A certain effortlessness is implied, too – by carrying a bag with just enough space for lipgloss, keys and an iPhone, the wearer tells us that she can step out looking perfectly put-together without lugging around all the products and tools the rest of us need. (Assistants, stylists and makeup artists, often with several suitcases in tow, are kept close by to help maintain the illusion.)
On the heels of Marie Kondo minimalism, a small handbag might seem like a virtuous rejection of excess. And as anyone who’s been stuck with their work bag at a party will know, carrying less can be liberating. "Freedom from having to carry stuff is power," writes Lisa Miller in her essay, "Men Know It’s Better to Carry Nothing", noting that while "men are walking around empty-handed, uncompelled to be useful", women are lumbered with "tool kits of servitude". But these lofty ideals don’t always translate to the real world, much less a COVID-19 one. As Tess Garcia wrote for Refinery29 earlier this year, the pandemic has given us a "newfound need for preparedness" – even the larger of the mini bags would struggle to accommodate a face mask and hand sanitiser. Likewise, the environmentally minded among us know that leaving the house with a canvas shopping tote, a water bottle and a reusable coffee cup is crucial to cutting out single-use plastic.
The micro bag, with its suggestion of a carefree, coddled existence, feels out of step with the current moment. In times of uncertainty, it’s the well-equipped bag lady whose lead we’d be wise to follow.