In most fashionyy settings (you know the ones: the God-awful “avant garde” fashion show; the gallery private viewing before the exhibition opens to the public; the launch party for some or other product/magazine/line that we would have forgotten about a week later), it is commonplace, if not de rigueur, for men to carry bags in various incarnations, be they carry-all baggage-sized totes, glittery purses (the murse) or a simple full-grain leather handbag. In these fabled surrounds, the bag is as much a part of the outfit as the suit and shoes. I often have minor palpitations at the thought that my only real bag (as in one that cost shitloads of money) is this wonderful hand-made calfskin and cordovan brown leather bag by the boys at Billy Reid, but the brown leather does not really go with the minimalistic black and white aesthetic I am trying to get going in terms of my clothing right now. Instead then, when rocking the black and white look, I am left to carry my good friends at Fish & Wood’s cotton tote that retails for R200 (I got mine as a freebie from the founder of the label at a party some years ago) because it is a simple white and the Fish & Woods insignia is inscribed in black.
I’m walking around in an event where people wouldn’t flinch at spending a month’s rent on a t-shirt and I am carrying a sack (calling it a bag seems a stretch in this context) that costs less than their lunch earlier that day.
But, despite the ubiquity of men carrying bags at these events, one gets the sense that ordinary men, as with everything else in men’s fashion, have been a little slower in catching up with the fashion set and embracing the Manbag as every bit an essential accessory to a man’s wardrobe as a belt, a watch or a decent pair of shoes (mind you, many ordinary men have not embraced those seemingly obvious items either. Of course, we do not speak of these men; they live in Idaho).
Until now. Recently, I have noticed an uptick in men carrying Manbags for varied occasions, from the rounded modern briefcases favoured by the major leather goods houses for corporate meetings, to soft leather vintage bags used for the gym, or handbags for just milling down the streets of the city, heading for a drink at the nearest bar. And with the varied settings where the bags are carried, it is wonderful to see the bags taking on different shapes, sizes, colour schemes and even manner of carriage. From demure black and navy leather handbags for the office (see inset: a slight twist on the more formal modern briefcase), to a messenger bag with front pockets details, recently seen worn cross-shoulder and giving the wearer that rugged, Camel Man feel.
And perhaps that is the primary reason why men have been rather shy to carry Manbags: the perennial fear of looking too feminine. Isn’t that what is at the heart of why it took goodness-knows-how-many-years after Hedi Slimane’s watershed moment with the slim cut at Dior Homme in the late 90’s, before that silhouette found its way to every pop and bro’s wardrobe by the late 2000s? Most men remain cautious of ever wearing anything that would be perceived as being womenswear. But slap the bag across your shoulder to your back, add oodles of nonchalant, and bang, Man.
Similarly disarming and not too effete, it seems, are leather backpacks, which would explain why you have seen a proliferation of that type of bag in the streets, especially amongst the hipster. Now, I grew up in the 90s where I carried an O’neill or Billabong or Stussy backpack to school; I am disinclined to rehash my teenage accessorising shortcomings by carrying one now, even if you replace the garish nylon with leather and throw a nice label on it.
And actually that is the essential reason why Manbags really have no business being categorised as being effeminate or belonging exclusively to the remit of women, because of their utility – men have phones, laptops, iPads, wallets, and try carrying all those in your hands or pockets. In a city, where you carry all these things, walking, running, getting on the Tube, cab, from work to drinks to dinner, the utility of a Manbag is undoubted.
And that’s how you sell anything to a man – make it clear that it is necessary and why that is so. Otherwise, ordinary men will continue wearing oversized clothes so that their oversized wallets fit into their oversized pockets, still with enough room to be able to do the splits. That’s not the look to go for.
Get a bag, man; a Manbag, if you will.
Writer: Lithemba Velleman