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What Makes A Handbag: Functionality Or Style?

I often think about a scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Andy Sachs’ boyfriend Nate — the movie’s real villain — asks the group, “Why do women need so many purses? You have one you put all your junk in and that’s it. You’re done.” To which Sachs’ friend Doug responds: “Fashion is not just about utility.” The reality is that handbags may have been created to fulfill a functional need, but fashion’s recent interest in “thing bags” has raised the question: Can anything be a handbag?  
Photo: Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
Photo: Courtesy of Puppets & Puppets.
On the fall runways, handbags took unusual shapes: Gabriela Hearst showed a bag that looked like an open book, while Puppets & Puppets had a bag shaped like a vase. Most recently, Coperni partnered with Brooklyn-based studio Heven for a confounding glass handbag that’s been used by Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian, and Doja Cat, while JW Anderson released a pigeon-shaped handbag that’s realistic enough to rattle onlo`okers with even minor ornithophobia. Celebs have also developed their own makeshift handbags: Rosalía was spotted wearing a biker helmet as a handbag before the release of her album Motomami earlier this year.
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And the shock effect often gets people talking: The Instagram announcement for JW Anderson's aforementioned pigeon-shaped clutch generated comments like “The way I need this in my life” and “It’s not a want, it’s a need.” Likewise, other releases like Coperni and Heven’s glass handbag have puzzled consumers, translating the confusion into curiosity. Last year, when designer Nikola Bentel launched a Barilla box-shaped handbag, it sold out quickly, prompting the designer to release a shipping box-shaped handbag earlier this year. 
For a while now, I’ve been eyeing Tomme Studio’s basketball-shaped handbags, made from real basketballs that have been split open and accessorized with tote and crossbody straps. I decided to try mine — a black-and-red number that features the famous Jordan Air logo — for a date night that involved a wine tasting and an outing to a whiskey bar. My boyfriend, an NBA fan, mocked me from the minute I grabbed the bag to head out, even queuing basketball-themed songs on Spotify as we drove to the wine tasting. I was vindicated when another attendee stopped me, saying, “That has to be the most badass bag ever.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Nikola Bentel.
Photo: Courtesy of Nikola Bentel.
While I enjoyed the compliments (I’m a Leo, after all), I had to admit that a basketball bag wasn’t the most functional. While roomy, the constricting nature of the rubber made it hard to reach my essentials. After a few hours carrying the bag, I had some marks from the zipper on my hand, and concluded that this bag was all about personal expression, not convenience. 
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The  second part of my experiment involved me seeing if truly anything could be a handbag. I reached for a dust bag from a recent wallet purchase from Saint Laurent. (After all, people buy designer trash to wear.) While the dust bag was made to fit the wallet, I was able to squeeze in a couple of extra items, including my keys and a lip balm. Even holding the dust bag was more functional than many of my handbags: the straps made it easy to hold it with my fingers, while the size was just perfect for me to carry it as a clutch. 
While Nate’s hypothesis was true — all I truly needed was somewhere to put all my junk in — carrying handbags, for me, is not all about functionality, or even needs. The dust bag was a practical, reusable option for those times when running errands doesn't require a massive tote bag full of envelopes, keys, wipes, and a makeup bag. Still, Doug’s counterargument rang in my mind the entire time: Fashion is a piece of iconography, used to express individual identity. And while a love of Saint Laurent can be considered personal expression for me, the basic dust bag just didn’t do it. 
So it’s safe to say that, yes, anything can be a handbag. The delicate balance between style and functionality is one that fashion has continuously challenged, and even if the bags get more confusing, the reality is that, in this case, a bag is in the eye of the holder
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