Remember that Friends episode where Joey falls in love with a handbag? His fascination with the accessory (and refusal to put it away even during an audition) was the punchline of several jokes because in 1999 men didn’t carry handbags and this effeminate trait needed to be mocked and played for laughs.
We’ve, hopefully, come a long way from that!
Sitting in 2022, we’ve become desensitised to gender-bending fashion. Mainstream male celebrities are seen wearing skirts and eyeliners out in public and men’s fashion runways have models strutting down with various iterations of classically feminine bag types on their shoulders. But what changed between 1999 and now?
While we can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that shifted the needle this drastically, most of the credit can be attributed to the rise of street style. This style subculture was heavily influenced by hip hop and had accessories like fanny packs bleed into mainstream fashion over time.
Historically speaking, bags were designed for men. In the Middle Ages, girdle pouches were carried by men when they stepped out of their houses. These pouches were stuffed with flowers and spices to counter the bad smells around them. Over time, these evolved into sturdier bags that could carry more things, especially with the advent of passenger rail travel that allowed men to move farther from home than before. These precursors to the modern briefcase were carried by wealthy and important men who had the means to venture away from home and actually owned enough valuable things that were worth carrying with them.
In the 20th century, with women joining the workforce, designers began creating larger bags as they needed to carry their things with them to work in factories. Soon higher society women began demanding high-end versions of the accessory for themselves. As a result, the bag became a female accessory largely. That is until 2019.
It’s not that before 2019 bags and their carriers were rigidly following the social constructs of gender. But Telfar Clemens and late designer Virgil Abloh, during his time at Louis Vuitton, popularised bags for men that were smaller, sturdier, and of a more traditionally female silhouette.
It was this year that Fendi presented men’s versions of their signature Baguette and Peekaboo bags. For the Dior Men SS2019 showcase, Kim Jones reimagined the label’s iconic Saddle bag. Following this, designers and labels like Celine, Amiri, Jacquemus, Thom Browne and Loewe presented their own takes on the modern ‘Murse’.
Gucci, under Allesandro Michele, presented an updated version of the label’s classic Jackie 1961 bag, this time for men, as evidenced by the brand’s muse and frequent collaborator Harry Styles being featured in the campaigns.
More and more celebrities have been spotted carrying ‘male purses’ around, like LeBron James and his Goyard toiletry bag, A$AP Rocky and his Gucci X Disney Mickey Mouse shoulder bag, Lil Uzi Vert carrying a Boy Chanel bag onstage during a performance, BTS’ J-Hope and his Bottega Veneta padded cassette bag, or Travis Scott’s jumbo croc Hermès HAC (Haute à Courroies).
Since fashion and trends are truly cyclical, bags are back to being the symbol of luxury and status. Christie’s recently reported that there has been increased participation in bids for luxury bags, like the Birkin, from Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries by a largely male client base.
In the face of more boundary-pushing colours, patterns, and silhouettes in men’s fashion around the world, bags will seamlessly fit in a modern man’s wardrobe. Guess Rachel Green was right! The world wasn’t ready for Joey’s man purse back then, but we’re sure here for it now!