To have and to hold: Masculinity and the clutch bag by Benjamin L.Wild
Edited by Andrew Reilly
From Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion Volume 2 Issue 1
Published January 2015
This small, typically strap-less, usually leather pouch, measuring in the region of 250•205•10mm made its debut in the autumn/winter catwalk shows of Valentino and Gucci in 2012. Several high-street retailers, including Reiss, Zara and Ted Baker, marketed the clutch bag almost immediately, but it is only now becoming ubiquitous. Prima facie, it seems hard to explain why, for the majority of clutches do not compare favourably with other styles of bag when it comes to price and utility.
Throughout history and across many cultures human hands have been subject to special treatment and belief because of their singular role in giving people’s thoughts material form, chiefly through the evolution of the opposable thumb. Gloved hands have particular associations and express temporal authority, effeminacy and formality (McDowell 2013: 90–93). Objects are carried for specific purposes and in the majority of situations this involves doing something active. To hold a practically useless object, therefore, is to claim a higher social position because of the immediate implication that other people are labouring, even thinking, on behalf of the object holder, whose labour and thought is being reserved for something else, something that is supposedly more significant.
During the eighteenth century, no well-heeled gentleman would have ventured out of doors without a cane. Some men would have needed support for their daily perambulations, but the vast majority carried their highly polished, intricately carved and exquisitely embellished stick as a status symbol. Held insouciantly, and rendering one hand useless, the cane suggested its owner enjoyed a surfeit of time. Depending on quality, the cane also indicated that its owner possessed sufficient disposable income.
Between 2009 and 2013, the global market for men’s luxury luggage increased 25.4 per cent; over the same period, the total market for menswear products increased 15.6 per cent (Crompton 2013). Correlatively, retailers from Dunhill to Mulberry are now investing more money to expand their lines in male luggage; one such item is the clutch bag. If the briefcase is a sartorial handicap signifying social distinction, the more expensive and impractical clutch potentially makes a more clamorous statement about the wealth and social confidence of its owner.
There are two likely reasons why the clutch bag is becoming ubiquitous in Style magazines and on the street at this particular moment in time (Brooks and Hayward 2013): first, the long-running discussion about men’s societal role in our post-industrial society, which has become increasingly critical following the banking crisis of 2008, and second, the recent popularity of the top-handle bag among women.
The top-handle bag, which Harrods reported to be one of the most popular styles for autumn/winter 2013 (Shi 2013), has a similar signification for women as the briefcase does for men because it is similarly restrictive and expensive; the same is true of the midi bag (Asome 2014). It signifies the disposable income, leisure and luxury that professional women can now access and enjoy (cf. Boyd 2014). Serena Boardman, senior global real estate adviser and associate broker at Sotheby’s Realty owns a Hermès Bolide Bugatti and opines:
A handheld bag has something special about it – it evokes memories of a kinder, less harried, gentler, more ladylike time.
The top-handle bag is also capable of making an assertive statement about women’s ability to challenge men, chiefly because of its association with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her inimitable approach to political discourse. The verb to ‘hand-bag’ – ‘to verbally attack or crush (a person or idea) ruthlessly and forcefully’ – entered the Oxford English Dictionary because of Thatcher’s combative approach to chairing ministerial meetings and her iconic Launer handbag, sales of which increased 53 per cent after her death (Bergin 2013).
The present popularity of the top-handle bag is significant because whilst women use sartorial props to demonstrate their social standing – when they wave a fan, carry a clutch bag to an evening event or, like men, use a mobile telephone – they have rarely limited their manual dexterity by carrying a practically useless prop. This is possibly because they wish to distance themselves from the dominant clothing discourse of the nineteenth century that had made mannequins of them to demonstrate the social prosperity of their significant male relatives, to whom they were supposedly subordinate (Crane 2000: 100).
The clutch bag seems to be a more assertive, perhaps even aggressive, example of this trend, however, because its emergence coincides with the popularity of the top-handle bag among women. If the top-handle bag is a material manifestation of women’s ability to challenge men’s societal role – ably amplified by its association with Margaret Thatcher – the male clutch bag could be a countervailing sartorial response. This conclusion is theoretical, but it has significant implications for sartorial studies that consider the connections between men and women’s fashions, the communicative ability of clothes and, perhaps above all, the extent to which disparate design-ers and consumers can foster a coherent discourse through dress.
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