From the ancient beaded bags of African priests to the haute couture tote of the modern lady of leisure, handbags have historically been both the carriers of secrets and the signifiers of power, status, and beauty. As the keepers of the equipment of daily life, handbags have been strongly influenced by technological and societal changes, such as the development of money, jewelry, transportation, cosmetics, smoking, cell phones, and the role of women in society.
Embracing its paradoxical role as both signifier and concealer, the handbag gestures toward a myriad of tantalizing psychological interpretations. The contents of a handbag have been seen as representing part of the Freudian unconscious, and the bag itself (as an empty receptacle) can be interpreted as female genitalia or even the womb. Indeed, the word “purse” was a slang word for the female pudenda from the seventeenth century (Steele and Borrelli 1999). Ancient, symbolic, and indispensable, the handbag has been a chameleon object, expressing (and carrying) the needs and tastes of both its wearer and its time.