Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What's in a purse?

For many women, a handbag is more than an accessory; it's a repository of life's daily essentials

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A woman's purse is less a cherished possession than an extension of her very being -- a critical part of her daily life, like a thumb.

Send her out in the world without one and she becomes a jumble of nerves and bulging pockets, ill-equipped for emergencies ranging from medical to fashion.

"I think in part it's like a security blanket," says style expert Joanne Blake of Style for Success, an admitted purse-lover who often carries more than one handbag on any given day for separate events in her giant purse-substitute, the trunk of her car.

She also likes to have a small cosmetics bag in her glove box that she can switch among purses, containing essentials like a nail file, dental floss and other supplies.

"It's insurance, just in case," she says of the vast array of items many women carry in their handbag. "You can be self-sufficient and support other people."

Tear-jerker movie? Save the day with tissues. Coffee spill on a white blouse? Pull out the Tide pen.

Just ask Nikki van Dusen, who single-handedly rescued an event she organized with the Post-it notes and Sharpie she always carries in her purse, creating makeshift signs guiding guests to a sudden change of venue.

So what else does she keep in her bag? "Oh my goodness, where do I start?" says the 41-year-old digital media manager.

Let's just say she'd easily win a reality show called Survivor: Handbag.

Hair accessories, makeup, a card-shaped, Swiss Army tool containing everything from a screwdriver to a magnifying glass, a toothbrush, eye drops, antihistamines, a reusable bag, compact hand towel, shoe polish kit, and that's just the beginning.

Van Dusen keeps track of it all with a special purse caddy that has tiny compartments to hold everything she needs. When it comes time to switch purses, she lifts out the entire caddy and moves it, along with her wallet and sunglasses.

While some may laugh, or worse, scoff, at the amount of stuff many women carry in their bags, we come by it naturally, historically speaking.

As far back as the 1700s, before women began carrying purses as we know them today, they wore tie-on pockets -- a pair of cotton or linen pouches that were hidden under voluminous hoop skirts, tied on at the waist, says Prof. Vlada Blinova, manager of the textiles collection at the University of Alberta. The collection includes 132 bags and 163 purses from around the world dating back to the 1800s.

"They literally would carry all their possessions, because they didn't really own much at that time, and everything that would be valuable they would have with them," she says.

"Everything from sewing or knitting tools, letters, hairbrushes, some fruit, little meals, their money...."

The pockets were so important to women that they'd carefully embroider them and even will them to their daughters, despite the fact that the pockets were hidden from public view most of the time.

"Their dress would have a slit in the side seam and you could reach this pocket through all the layers of petticoats and your hoop skirt, and fish out whatever you needed to find," says Blinova.

As fashions changed and skirts became slimmer, women began to carry reticules, small, drawstring pouches that became the first handbags, she adds.

While times and fashions have changed, the same need to carry our essentials with us endures.

"Women can't live without some things; we have to have them all the time," says Blinova.

For 25-year-old Kirsta Franke, a marketing and events co-ordinator, her handbag is a critical part of her life.

Weighing in at a hefty 4.3 kilograms on the day we talked to her, Franke's black, felt bag is made by Filson, the Seattle outfitter that guarantees its sturdy bags for life.

Franke puts it to the test with a thick Day-timer ("my second brain"), an iPad and a large book, plus necessities like glasses, hand cream, makeup, wallet, lip balm and bus tickets. She's also carrying around a couple of silver-coloured plastic farm animals (she's putting them in her terrarium at work) and the metal control knob for an outdoor faucet (to get running water to the market).

Because she doesn't own a car and takes the bus everywhere, Franke will often carry a change of clothes or a pair of heels for nighttime. In summer, she throws in a bathing suit in case she has time for a swim and a towel or blanket to sit outside.

"I think my purse reflects me in a lot of ways. Being as busy as I am... It looks like the contents of a girl that's on the go."

She has a collection of about 40 bags of various types, regularly rotating among five or six favourites.

But her bag pales in size and self-sufficiency to her grandmother's, says Franke with a laugh.

"My grandma, my god, her bag is probably triple the weight of mine.

"She has everything she needs in there -- probably 25 lipsticks, all a different shade of pink, a wallet with a change purse this big, Lifesavers, mints."

For Jennifer Banks, a 36-year-old business owner and mother of two young girls, her purse has become a repository for Cheerios, wipes, stickers, sippy cups and all things princess. As a partner in digital marketing firm Kick Point, she also carries her iPad and business cards in there, and refuses to carry a diaper bag.

She usually has several stocked bags on the go, ready to use. Often they end up with bits of half-eaten food in them, left over from her kids.

"It's not intentional, but my daughter will eat half a muffin, and without even thinking about it, I'll throw it in my purse, and then a week later, I think, 'Ooh, what's crunchy in the bottom of my bag?'" she says.

"I'm pretty sure I had dipping sauce for chicken nuggets in there for three weeks before I realized it was at the very bottom. I don't even remember having chicken nuggets, but I had hot mustard sauce."

Banks admits she has "kind of a fetish" for purses, particularly flashy ones.

"They're just very colourful and vibrant and sparkly, like my personality. My business partners think they're ridiculous, but they appreciate that I can get away with it."

What's harder to understand is a woman who manages without a purse, like personal trainer Shara Vigeant.

"I know it's weird, but I just don't have a lot to carry," says the 36-year-old, who trains mixed martial arts fighters, hockey players and regular folk too.

"My husband has bought me Coach bags, but I hate carrying stuff .... I found when I was going out with a purse, there was nothing in it but my BlackBerry and a lip gloss and key."

Instead, Vigeant carries a gym bag, which holds the extra clothes she needs at her gym/studio/office, a change of shoes and her laptop, plus her phone and wallet.

She usually throws in some skin cleanser and coverup, and to help keep her makeup simple, she has lash extensions. "I'm very low-maintenance. I'm a minimalist. I hate clutter; I hate having a lot of stuff around me."

She does admit to having about eight Lululemon gym bags in different styles and colours though. "I'm all about awesome, fancy gym bags," she adds, and she does love shoes -- both runners and heels.

Style and etiquette expert Blake is also an advocate of less clutter in a bag, not only for practical reasons, but for professional ones.

At business functions, women should avoid carrying a huge bag in which business cards sink straight to the bottom and defy all attempts to fish them out, she says.

"I don't think a bag should bulge. That's a sign that you need a bigger purse, or need to weed it out," says Blake. "The larger the purse, the more stuff we're inclined to keep in it."


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2013 C1

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