No matter what you call it -- city bag, satchel, bucket, tote, shopper, hobo, or messenger bag -- big bags are in. But do we really have that much stuff, or is something else going on?
A few years ago I thought I was having serious cardiac problems. The area around my heart would seize up in such severe pain that I would have to lie down. Both of my grandfathers died young of heart disease and my father nearly died of a heart attack in his forties. I thought I should go see a doctor.
After a battery of tests, including an echocardiogram, I sat in the examination room, fearing the worst. The cardiologist's assistant came in to see me. "Do you carry a shoulder bag?" she asked. "Uh, yes," I answered, feeling flush.
"Do you carry it on your left shoulder?" she continued. I was puzzled. "Yes," I replied. I had an oversize Italian tote I was fond of. "You have an inflammation in the muscle over your heart," she said. "You need to start carrying a handbag." She explained my condition and the medicine I could take to reduce the inflammation. "Your heart looks perfect," she noted. "There's not a thing wrong with it."
From that point forward, I began dropping weight. Pounds slipped from my shoulder to my hand; I bought bags with handles, not straps or harnesses. I lightened up and learned to get by with less. Within a few months, I was feeling significantly better.
The experience caused me to notice things that I hadn't seen before. When a new handbag caught my eye, I started seeing its size as much as its style. I began to see a trend: women were carrying increasingly bigger bags. Houses and cars were ballooning; so was the stuff women needed. This did not bode well for my sex. This spring, my suspicions were confirmed by the March issue of Vogue; it featured Drew Barrymore on the cover in a French orange frock the color of poppies, silk ruffles circling her bodice like bright petals. Big bags dominated the 156 pages of ads leading up to the table of contents—in the Louis Vuitton ad, women were scattered like flowers over the top, hood, and trunk of a vintage car, each clasping a big sack. Dior models stood in a frozen state of ambivalence, holding oversize purses with game-show poise. The ads for clothes and shoes and cosmetics and jewelry sagged under the weight of the Big Bag.
A trend that had previously seemed amusing (a natural leap from MySpace to MyStuff) suddenly seemed more serious. Were women so overwhelmed with life's demands that they needed to take a suitcase wherever they went? These giant totes were fashionably crafted in exotic leathers and artsy vinyls, in shimmery metallics or with canvases stamped in bold logos. But their disproportionate sizes spoke in unison of a life out of hand. Were women driving up to the window of life and saying, "Supersize me"?
I called Meredith Trusty to ask her about this development. Meredith graduated from Charlotte Latin three years ago. She's been studying fashion design at UNC-Greensboro, and this summer she is working for a luxury handbag atelier in New York City. Be & D is a hot name among celebrities and fashion editors, with an A-list of clients that includes Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Meredith is an intern on the design team; her workday is filled with learning about grommets and studs, taking drawings to the sample maker a few blocks away, and cataloging exotic leathers. She mentioned blue eel.
"Right now I'm carrying a really big bag," she told me one Friday during her lunch break. "It's like my Mary Poppins bag. I never clean it out. And I never know what will come out of it. I just throw more in!"
I had to laugh. I could just see this slender twenty-one-year-old with her thick mass of red curls and bright blue eyes, probably wearing ballet flats, putting down her sandwich to look into her handbag as she talked.
I decided to do some Andy Rooney-style research, which is to say not particularly scientific. At SouthPark mall, I squeezed in some bag watching during a couple of shopping trips. Modestly sized bags, like bamboo-handled resort bags or soft Vera Bradley hobos, were often strapped alongside a stroller; with diaper bags and stroller pockets, maybe those moms already had enough places to stash stuff. A few women my age, walking with their jean-clad daughters as they headed into Tiffany or kate spade, had tailored leather bags slung over their shoulders, restrained in hue and no bigger than a book. But the majority of women, from young girls in torn jeans to stylish executives in towering pumps, toted big bags. Natural colors in earthy tans and grays were prevalent, as were black or white, and occasionally a colorful tote would sail past like a kite dropping in a beach sky.
Satchels, buckets, totes, shoppers, hobos, city bags, and messenger bags are some of the trendy names of the Big Bag. Because most women like owning more than one, there are even mini bags to go inside, providing a convenient way to switch from bag to bag without dumping all the contents on the bed to find what you need. At the Buttercup in Myers Park, near the front door, shelves are filled with "Pouchees"—purse organizers—each with a big metal ring. Made of cloth or vinyl with slots for credit cards and pockets for a checkbook, cell phone, money, and glasses, the kangaroo-inspired pouch is easily fished out by its ring for a transfer.
If every generation is defined by its fashion, then one day ours will be distinguished by, among other things, the Big Bag. Although at the moment it may be a "must have" that is fun and clever and practical, one day it will be as cliché as a steamer trunk or a silver cigarette case. The language of clothes belies the mood of a generation; historian Barbara Tuchman pointed out that the pregnant-looking clothes of the fourteenth century became fashionable following the bubonic plague. Death was sudden, unexplainable, and widespread, so women subconsciously grasped for symbols of life.
The giant bag has arisen during a time when women are carrying a lot of baggage, figuratively and literally. From diaper bags to hanging bags, wine bags to grocery bags, and shopping bags to computer bags, we're encumbered. And we're constantly on the move. We're also a generation weighed down with psychological baggage—our hearts are heavy with broken relationships, confusing expectations, and unforeseen disappointments. Maybe the Big Bag is going to get bigger, but I hope it's about to reach a weight limit.
Last week I flew to Delaware to visit my youngest sister. Normally I pack a big suitcase and check it, but with US Airways charging for bags, I laid out my things and studied the situation. The skills I had picked up learning to streamline my handbag paid off. Tossing aside a special blow dryer, extra hairbrush, unnecessary sandals, and what-if-I-need-those clothes, I got everything for a five-day stay in a small carry-on, with room to spare. It felt good to wrestle my insecurities and win.
At some point, the Big Bag will leave us. The mental fuel it takes to keep moving will eventually prove scarce, and we will decide that it costs too much—emotionally and physically—to haul everything around. In the meantime, we need a few good designers who can help us pare down in style.
Now where did I put that phone number for Meredith?