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The term “man bag” is arguably one of the most irritating in fashion history: ugly sounding, borderline patronising, borderline sexist. It’s also never been more outdated, as fashion items as gendered objects blur – look to the collections of all the major houses, where you’ll find men photographed with crossbodies and neat top-handles as evidence of this.

“Handbag” as a term, now commonly associated with women, originated in the 19th century and was actually used to describe leather travel bags carried by men. This rather excellent baggage intel was one of the many things that Victoria and Albert Museum curator Dr Lucia Savi discovered during her research for the exhibition Bags: Inside Out, on until September 2021. The show brings together 300 objects – including Winston Churchill’s despatch box (a splashy red man bag) and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White fanny pack – and includes bags for men as part of the overall narrative, rather than lumping them in the corner as a shameful afterthought.

The burse for the Great Seal of England, 1558-1603
The burse for the Great Seal of England, 1558-1603 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

One of Savi’s key talking points is a burse for the state seal of Elizabeth I, made from embroidered velvet and satin. It dates from 1558, and was carried by a man. “This is the kind of bag you don’t expect to see associated with men, it’s very decorative and bright, but it was carried proudly and was a symbol of power,” she explains. Another significant part of the exhibition, and in the narrative of bags used by men, are military bags. “These are very important in understanding today’s rucksacks – high-tech bags full of compartments and pockets – all of which originate from military equipment,” says Savi.

Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani in the sit-com Friends, 1999
Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani in the sit-com Friends, 1999

So why is the subject of bags for men still up for debate? As if the very idea of carrying something on our persons that might be quite nicely designed and useful is akin to some kind of sartorial scandal. Cue the 1999 episode of Friends named “The One with Joey’s Bag”, in which Matt LeBlanc’s character is admonished for carrying a black leather tote. In one scene, while proudly wearing it on his shoulder, he says: “But it is odd how a woman’s purse looks so good on me, a man?” before the show’s canned laughter track plays out.

Harry Styles in London, February 2020
Harry Styles in London, February 2020 © Getty Images
Off-White by Virgil Abloh bum bag, autumn/winter 2019
Off-White by Virgil Abloh bum bag, autumn/winter 2019 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Fast-forward 20 years, and change is afoot. One of the biggest turning points for man bags was Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme for autumn/winter 2017, which saw models slung with crossbody bags or holding leather clutches. A small style from this partnership ended up on the red carpet, worn with a tuxedo by Jaden Smith. Savi notes that the popularity of streetwear and the rise of styles such as bumbags with a younger generation have also changed the game; her inclusion of Off-White in the exhibition underlines this point.

Dior mini Saddle bag, £2,050
Dior mini Saddle bag, £2,050
Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union outside the 2017 Thom Browne show, Paris
Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union outside the 2017 Thom Browne show, Paris © Getty Images

The likes of Bottega Veneta, Prada and Gucci have also made versions of Joey’s so-called purse a central part of their menswear collections. Kim Jones’ first collection for Dior Men during spring/summer 2019 featured an update of the John Galliano-era Saddle bag, made popular on Sex and the City by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Fendi has also made a habit of showing menswear outfits festooned with bags. Stylist Julian Ganio, who consults for the Italian house, says the recently launched Baguette for men has been popular with a wide cross section of men. “I think it’s because of the practical shape and size, and the ease of how to wear it – be it crossbody, holding it as a clutch or around the waist.” He also notes that a lot of men’s bags have shrunk in size. “Maybe it’s because we don’t carry as much around as we used to? Or possibly it’s just because it’s easier to carry, more practical… and they’re cuter, of course.”

Ettinger Burlington briefcase, £1,150
Ettinger Burlington briefcase, £1,150

Robert Ettinger, the CEO of British leather goods brand Ettinger, says that this shift in bag design is reflective of what people need to carry. “Many of our bags and briefcases have been re-engineered or newly designed with this very much in mind; our handmade classic attaché case, for example, now has an iPad pocket in the inside lid, and most of our newer bags and cases have slip pockets or pockets for these.” While the brand’s bestsellers include leather zipped portfolios and the relatively new Burlington briefcase, Ettinger acknowledges the increased use of the rucksack, which he says are “not big on the style stakes”. Before adding: “Personally, I am sad to see that this has become the uniform bag for a lot of London city gents, rather than a proper briefcase or attaché case.”

Jaden Smith attends the GQ Men of the Year Awards in London, 2017
Jaden Smith attends the GQ Men of the Year Awards in London, 2017
Tyler, the Creator and Ariana Grande attend the 2020 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles
Tyler, the Creator and Ariana Grande attend the 2020 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles © Getty Images

Rose Forde, a menswear editor and stylist who works with actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh O’Connor and Joe Alwyn, says that while she currently doesn’t think about bags when styling red-carpet moments, younger stars are starting to embrace them. “The red carpet is becoming the place to break trends and make statements,” she says. “Jaden Smith is a perfect example of this, as is Tyler, the Creator, with his luggage at the Grammys. I encourage points of difference and notes from the runway as long as it does not look forced. As bags for men are changing function and becoming part of a ‘look’, maybe it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing more on the red carpet.”

Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2021
Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2021
Prada spring/summer 2021
Prada spring/summer 2021

Emerging London brand Stefan Cooke has also included “granny bags” – boxy designs that look like the kind of thing you’d see carried by a royal in The Crown – in recent collections. “It might sound lame, but it was the idea of challenging masculinity,” explains Cooke. “When we first did them they were in Perspex. It started with this idea of seeing a guy holding his girlfriend’s handbag while she’s maybe in the changing room or something like that.” He pauses. “It was this idea to us, that an object could be seen as so crazy feminine that men wouldn’t go near it.”

Gucci Off The Grid crossbody bag, £840
Gucci Off The Grid crossbody bag, £840

As Forde argues: “In some ways… Prada and Gucci, with their crossbody bags, and Dior with its Saddle, seem to be helping to shape a new male perspective on bags as an essential accessory. I think men having to have a bag purely for function is old rhetoric.”

One of my most memorable man-bag moments was in Paris in January 2019, while waiting for the Raf Simons show to begin. In strolled Frank Ocean, brandishing a rather large leather tote which, it transpired, was from a Phoebe Philo-era Céline collection when the house didn’t make menswear. Did Ocean care that he was carrying a bag created for a woman? He most certainly did not.

Bags: Inside Out is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 12 September 2021

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