Handbags and Gladrags

Handbags and gladrags? …well, just handbags really.

It was a book that got me started on this, if I’m honest. “Sushi for Beginners” by Marian Keyes. Ashling, one of the main characters, carries round everything but the kitchen sink everywhere she goes. Plasters, paracetamol, sewing kit, rescue remedy – they all have a permanent place in her bag.

Throughout the course of the book, it becomes clear that this is a defence mechanism against the world, dating back to her mother’s depression when Ashling was a child. Ashling coped with this by starting to carry round everything she possibly could to try and protect her mother, her brother and sister and herself – money for ice creams in case her mother forgot it, plasters and Anadin in case of accidents… you get the general idea.

Keys, tissues, Vaseline, sunglasses, batteries, tampons, gloves, paracetamol, sewing kit, rescue remedy…

And then I saw an article in the Observer[1]. A German leather company, Bree, has designed an illuminated handbag. Saves us all that trouble rooting round at the bottom of our bags for housekeys or a ringing mobile, apparently. And it can be ours for a mere ?170 for an evening bag! They’re on sale in Selfridges if anyone is interested.

It all got me thinking about the differences between the sexes (it doesn’t take much!); what we carry round with us and how. How often do you see a woman without some kind of handbag? From tiny rucksacks through sequinned glamour bags to big mummy handbags, it’s very rare to see a woman without one. Men, on the other hand, seem to get away with carrying very little clutter on them.

I asked round my friends what they carry round with them on a daily basis. The answers were very revealing. Every woman I asked except one carried a handbag just about everywhere. Only one man regularly carried a bag with him, and that bag was a rucksack rather than some kind of handbag. And the list of things people carry round with them every day amazed even me! One of my friends admitted to carrying round three sets of keys, tissues, a packet of Airwaves, Vaseline, a tube of Bonjela, a purse, a diary/address book, an umbrella, sunglasses, a comb, AA and AAA batteries, her mobile, a cloth to clean her glasses, a lip balm, tampons, gloves and a book. She claims to use everything apart from the batteries and the lip balm, but I really doubt that she uses all of them on a daily basis – how often do you actually need sunglasses and an umbrella on the same day? I know British weather is unreliable, but honestly! Other items people carry with them everywhere include a full set of makeup, cigarettes and lighters, torches, eye drops and cheque books.

So what gives? If women need to carry all this with them everywhere they go, why don’t men? Where do they carry their rescue remedy, diary and batteries? How can they live from day to day without knowing that they have batteries handy in case they need them, or pen and paper in case they meet the partner of their dreams and need to write down their phone number? It almost defies logic.

Well, maybe not quite.

Generally speaking, if you do suddenly need batteries there’ll be a shop handy to buy them from. And if the girl of your dreams wants your number, then surely you’ll both have your mobiles? Or if not, she’ll *obviously* have a pen and paper herself…

If women need to carry all this with them everywhere they go, why don’t men?

Are we women really that bad? Do we really need to carry round plasters and paracetamol every single day, just in case we get a bad cut or a bad head? Do we need to carry tampons round with us every single day of the month? We only use them for a few days a month under normal circumstances. Fair enough, keep some at home and some in your desk drawer in work or wherever is convenient, but if you leave them in your bag permanently they get all bitty anyway! And Tampax machines in toilets and branches of Boots or Superdrug are always there for emergencies.

I also suspect that we’re leaving ourselves more open to crime this way. Sure, pickpockets exist, but bags are surely much easier to either snatch or to open and steal a wallet or phone from. Men tend to keep things closer to their body so their wallets and mobiles should be harder to steal. I know that in crowded places, I tend to make sure the opening to my bag is covered and that I know who’s behind me and how close if I’m wearing a bag on my back. It’s amazing how paranoid I am about my handbag, considering how easy-going I am about most things.

Of course, men’s tendency to keep everything in their pockets does often ruin the line of their clothes and sometimes even mean that clothes don’t last as long – after all, trouser pockets weren’t really designed for fag packets, lighters, wallets and keys to be kept in permanently. But would that really be too high a price to pay for being so much lighter and less prone to bag snatchers?

So what would I like to see? Gender equality, dammit! I’d like to see some men bringing out bags to keep their essentials in and more women leaving their bags at home, even just occasionally. Who cares if you don’t have your emergency concealer or Tampax or sweets or Bonjela? As long as you’ve got your money with you, you can always go and get some more if you really, really need some. It’s worth the chance. I popped to the pub for lunch from work the other day and left my bag locked in my desk – although I felt a bit lost at first, it was nice not to have to worry about where it was if I got deep into conversation, knowing that my wallet and keys were in my pocket. I’d recommend it to anyone!

And Ashling? After her boyfriend leaves her for her best friend, she ends up suffering from depression badly herself. She climbs out of it with the help of her mother, friends and Jack, a work colleague who ends up as her partner. At the end of the book, he persuades her to throw her bag, contents and all, into the sea, saving only her wallet, cigarettes, a pack of sweets and her mobile.


  1. “Fireflies cast light on dark secrets of women’s handbags”

Beth Anderson is glad not to be a slave to the handbag fascists any more.