Prevalent and habitual as it appears today, the handbag is a relatively recent fashion phenomenon and one with a rather divisive literary and cultural history. From the late nineteenth century, the woman’s bag emerged as a subversive emblem for female self- sufficiency in the shape of a secure container for the formation of an autonomous narrative. It is no accident that Henrik Ibsen made “Nora’s small travelling bag,” material manifestation of her “duty” to herself over and above her domestic duty as a wife and mother, the closing object of visual focus in A Doll’s House (1879). This was an emblem taken up by a number of New Women writers of fiction and non-fiction, from George Egerton and Nellie Bly through to Dorothy Richardson. In the words of Caroline Cox, “as women became a more tangible presence on the city streets, so did their bags, which changed from dainty reticules into shapes that were sturdier and more substantial.” Yet if the bag was elevated as a symbol of female autonomy and potentiality during this period, such significations sat rather uncomfortably with age-old iconographic associations of bags with wombs and fertility; a woman’s more traditional reproductive and maternal role, in other words. This emergent tension was nicely captured in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), where the well-known theatrical handbag is shown to contain the manuscript of a work of fiction before it holds that famously misplaced baby. Figuratively speaking, the handbag has been shown to liberate and to fix narrative possibilities for the modern woman at one and the same time and such contending representations have endured to the present day. Germaine Greer has, for instance, characterized the modern woman’s handbag as “an exterior uterus, the outward sign of the unmentionable burden” while Ursula K. Leguin has alternatively invoked the woman’s bag in the service of proposing a “carrier-bag theory of fiction,” finding in that very bag-womb analogy the secret of a new form of creative empowerment. This is an object whose rise to the status of essential fashion accessory cannot be interpreted in any facile way. The modern handbag heralded a new woman while speaking of an old woman, serving thus as a fascinating conduit for authorial and feminist negotiations of sexual difference in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My intentions in this paper are thus twofold: to present the handbag as a fashionable object with competing and, often oppositional, narratives and to investigate the extent to which such interpretative malleability and conflict has, in fact, contributed to its ubiquitous presence as a (largely unquestioned) sartorial staple.
|Publication status||Published - Jun 2014|