by Christine Gibbs

Who among us would be caught dead without her handbag?

To the handbag-obsessed, personal space is a moving experience. Which explains the centuries-old addiction to our purses. The handbag industry generates many tens of billions of dollars a year and, according to one survey, the average woman owns six—with an average price range of $40 to $65. At least that’s what we’re admitting to. Consumer goods guru Kellie Styring, interviewed on recently, reported that 95 percent of women aged 18 to 64 carry a purse every day, with two or three favorites. That works out to 212 million “active” purses at any given time. As part of her study, Styring examined the contents of 100 purses and found that they housed an average of 67 items, ranging from the mundane (lipstick,  phones and gum wrappers) to the highly unusual (knives, marital aids). One purse produced a summons for prostitution.

Sigmund Freud also had a thing or two to say on the subject. In his Interpretation of Dreams, he associated the purse with a female’s most personal space, her womb. So typically Freudian…but certainly the handbag can offer a peek into a woman’s id, as well as her ego. It usually contains the keys (literally and figuratively) to her routine activities (cell, wallet, checkbook and credit cards), along with more intimate clues (lipstick, supplements, and even the occasional contraceptive). On a more serious note, sometimes items are included to ensure physical safety (a mini-flashlight, a can of pepper spray, or a street-wise personal protection alarm).

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Statistics and psychoanalysis aside, for all of us, the real value of our purses as personal space lies in their portability. We literally can take them with us wherever we go. And they say so much about us, too. Spill out a handbag’s contents and the owner is revealed as a clutterbug or a neatnik, young or old, wealthy or not so well off. The type (not to mention the price tag) of a handbag generates more clues as to the personality of the carrier. Is it a clutch, a sac, a hobo, a tote or a satchel?Is it worn over the shoulder, carried by hand, or even slung cross-body? Is it an animal-lover’s favorite print or a collector’s vintage item? Does it reflect the season (fur in winter, straw in summer)? Is it leather or leatherette, color-blocked or quilted? Is it a designer item, a discount store purchase or a high-grade knockoff? Is it so small it could qualify as a wallet? Or so large it might incur extra baggage fees at an airport check-in? The EDGE editorial team decided to look for some answers…

Bag Ladies

Many of us would consider it a violation of privacy were someone to peek uninvited into our purses. With the promise of anonymity, however, five New Jersey women volunteered to reveal the handbag contents they won’t leave home without.

  • “I always keep two Benadryl pills in my purse since I’m allergic to bees. Unfortunately, the Epi-pen that my doctor recommended I carry with me doesn’t fit in my purse, so I keep it in my glove compartment instead…shame on me. Maybe it’s time for a bigger purse.”
  • “I use my purse as a medicine bag, a food pantry, a closet, and a library. I have to tote along an inhaler for my son because he has asthma and an Epi-pen for his nut allergy. If I am away from the house, I carry snacks—healthy and nut-free of course.  It’s like a repurposed diaper bag for older kids now, filled with hand sanitizers, tissues and wipes. Pre-kids, I was a wristlet/clutch carrier.  One day again maybe!  I love purses, but I hate carrying things. I only have boys, so it’s unlikely I can look forward to the day they have purses of their own.”
  • “Not only would I never leave the house without my purse, I would never leave without my one-a-day Sudoku paperback puzzle book and a freshly sharpened #2 Mongol pencil safely tucked inside. I regularly use it to while away the time—not only at prolonged appointments, but I have even been known to whip it out when stopping for gas or standing in line at the supermarket. I think I may need a 12-step program.”
  • “Stashed away and almost forgotten in whatever wallet happens to be inside my current purse is a slightly tattered St. Jude prayer card. Several years ago, while sitting in the waiting room of the hospital where my Dad was undergoing serious surgery, my concern must have been evident in my body language—so much so that an elderly lady sitting nearby came over and handed me this card. She explained that she believed St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes, had helped her through her own personal crisis. Without hesitation about parting with it, she said, ‘You look like you need this right now much more than I do.’ With heartfelt gratitude I thanked her and returned to my worrying. I was holding onto the prayer card when my Dad’s surgeon approached to tell me he had come through with flying colors. I thanked the doctor profusely and then sent some thanks St. Jude’s way as well. You never know.”


Though most people are timid when it comes to talking about contents, everyone has a handbag story to tell. A close friend had received a very personalized gift from her Tuscan father-in-law—a beautifully monogrammed shoulder bag of the palest butter-soft yellow suede—as a memento of her first visit. On a stopover in London, her husband suggested she save the Italian beauty for special occasions, but she couldn’t resist taking it with her as they ventured out in search of fish & chips. In an idyllic park-like setting, they settled upon a small food vendor who specialized in authentic newsprint funnels of crispy battered cod filets, jammed in with the quintessential twice-fried chips. Taking special care to avoid even the remotest possibility of an oily drip desecrating her handbag, my friend carefully removed it from her shoulder and placed it next to her on the park bench. Once the last of the chips had been devoured and all fingers properly licked and paper-napkined clean, she reached for her precious purse. As she reached for her handbag, she heard from above the cooing of a large pigeon with an apparent digestive issue. She glanced down just in time to see a very wet, very lethal stain spreading across the suede nap of her formerly flawless purse. There was nothing to be done. The stain resisted all attempts at removal. The bag was beyond redemption. She had lost her bag to the birds.

A lot of “lost bag” stories I’ve heard have more positive outcomes, including my own. I once forgot I had placed my purse on the roof of my car while loading it with groceries in the supermarket parking lot, and carelessly drove off. When I arrived home, I realized it was missing. I zoomed back to the market to check if anyone had turned it in to the Lost & Found. No luck. I surveyed the area around the original parking spot. No luck, either. Resigned to canceling all my credit cards, getting a new driver’s license, dealing with my lost cell phone, etc., I walked back to the car—and spotted it, still on the roof. I no longer feel ashamed of my heavy, overstuffed hobo bag. Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t have moved that off the roof.

Star Gazing

Sometimes the bag itself is the story. Anna Gunn, star of TV’s Breaking Bad series, appeared on the Red Carpet at the January Screen Actors Guild Awards carrying the most perfect personalized accessory—given that she won a SAG award for her performance. What was the accessory? A sparkling, palm-sized clutch emblazoned with the show’s Br/Ba logo. No other fashion statement, carried or worn that evening, rivaled it.

Awards season also thrust Cate Blanchett’s Birkin bag into the spotlight. It took on a life of its own in the film Blue Jasmine, for which Blanchett won a Best Actress Oscar. Woody Allen is known for his shoestring budgets, and in this case the bag’s price tag was equal to the cost of the rest of the film’s wardrobe. Blanchett drove costume designer Suzy Benzinger crazy by flinging her Birkin all over the set. “She was having conniptions,” Blanchett reported.

Other celebrities recently caught toting pricey designer handbags include…

Nicky Hilton

Balenciaga Magenta City Bag ($1250-$1345)


Victoria Beckham and Khloe & Kim Kardashian Hermes Birkin Bag

(customizable between $7400 and $150,000 by waiting list only)

HRH Kate Middleton

LK Bennett clutch

(a relatively plebian $475)

Taylor Swift

Ralph Lauren Calfskin Ricky Lock Crossbody Bag ($1950)

Miley Cyrus

Edie Parker Jean evening bag ($1295)


Jessica Alba

Prada Madras Top Handle Flap Tote ($2650)

Sarah Jessica Parker

Balenciaga First Bag ($1395)

Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez

Gucci USA Flag Boston Bag ($895, designed in support of UNICEF)


A close friend has found a solution to the long lines at security checkpoints. Atypically, she has an aversion to just about all handbags and carries one only when absolutely necessary. At a recent theater evening, she opted to bring along her favorite—a delightful purse of the smallest possible proportions flaunting the cutest bejeweled feline face. As her turn approached for the inevitable security check, she began to remove the purse from her wrist in order to present it for inspection. Before she could do so, the screener laughingly told her not to bother, since he was sure that her adorable mini-bag could in no way ever conceal anything that could possibly pose a security threat. Without further ado, he waved her on into the lobby. The cat in the bag had worked its charm once again.

Making History

The origin of the saying about making “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” is attributed to 18th century author Jonathan Swift. Even without easy access to a sow’s ear these days, handbags still are among the most popular of personal spaces, at least for women. Yet, handbags actually date back more than 5,000 years. The original purpose of a purse was to carry around one’s personal net worth—often in the form of coins, making ancient purses the accessory of choice of men not women. The Bible refers to Judas as having worn a purse.

Many centuries later, European men turned to leather pockets in their trousers (called “bagges” in the 16th century) and later on to small wallets in their pockets, where they stashed their cash.

European women began to devote their domestic skills to producing a fashionable feminine accessory known as the reticule, a delicate silk or velvet pouch with drawstrings and wrist straps to facilitate hand-carrying. By the end of the 17th century, the handbag had become—and remains to this day—an almost exclusive feminine accessory, the oft-maligned fanny packs and “man bags” notwithstanding.

Putting style, size and seasonality aside, a handbag represents a composite of its owner’s life, her taste and the times. Unlike the royals, who technically don’t need to carry anything for themselves, we commoners are on an obsessive quest to find the perfect container for our everyday belongings. Whether it’s called a handbag or a purse or a pocketbook (or a bolsa, borsa or sac a main for that matter), this predominantly feminine accessory has gone on many a personal journey…some anecdotal, others indelible, and still others preferably forgotten. Even when it has outlived its usefulness or its appeal—when its original newness has faded to a timeworn shabbiness—an old handbag can still hold a pocketful of memories.