How Tiny Bags Came to Represent Power And Femininity
“In today's context, I see carrying a tiny purse as freedom from expectations and attachments to material items.”
Tiny bags have been everywhere lately, recently popping up at the American Music Awards in late November hanging from the long, glittery fingernails of powerhouse female musician Lizzo. Wearing an orange ruffled mini dress, the singer rocked a white bag so tiny it could’ve very well belonged to a Polly Pocket toy set. She even went as far as sharing the outfit on her Instagram account with a caption that said, “@maisonvalentino bag big enough for my fucks to give…” And while the outfit immediately spurred a wave of Internet memes about what the singer was metaphorically carrying in the tiny purse, the look also carried a deeper message about how women see themselves today.
The tiny handbag was always not exclusively feminine says Dr. Audrey Millet, a Paris-based fashion historian. According to her, men in the Middle Ages wore small pockets to keep their change, which was then called a handkerchief. “The importance of table games (dice or card games) in high society has also contributed to its personalization,” she says. In order to not mistake a neighbor’s bag for one’s own, the owner’s initials or coat of arms were embroidered into the bag. At the same time, the tiny bag was also given as an embroidered engagement gift that was exchanged at weddings. By the 18th century, the men’s bag was transformed into a wallet, ultimately becoming more refined. And by the end of the century, Dr. Millet explains, The Parisian Journal des Modes quipped, “One may leave one’s husband but never one’s bag.”
With the advent of clothing catalogs the small bag, then called a reticle, became an essential accessory for women. “Industrialization made it possible to acquire cheaper bags, in knitwear, cotton and printed bags,” she offers. “While the bag was small in size, putting women to work, the growth of the global economy and the rise of capitalism required many more items to be transported.” In addition to makeup items like facial powder and lip balm, this included wallets, umbrellas, folders, and other essentials for everyday life. The size of the bag expanded with smaller ones being reserved for night outings, thereby growing synonymous with elegance, idleness, and wealth says Dr. Millet. And it was in 1997 that the Fendi Baguette bag ushered in the small bag’s cultural return. “Only the rich and dominant female population could afford to go out with their transportation card, credit card, and lip gloss,” expresses the fashion historian.
“The Fendi Baguette silhouette was scaled down from more practical shoulder bag silhouettes,” says Hallie Spradlin, accessories director at trend forecasting company Fashion Snoops. Although it was mocked mercilessly by wearers and deemed frivolous (its mascot was Sex And the City’s Carrie Bradshaw) the bag had a cultural impact much like the one we are seeing again today. With all things nostalgia making their way back into our lexicon, it’s no wonder we’re seeing the designer item return. In fact, earlier this year Fendi announced it would reissue the bag after mega influencers like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner started rocking the iconic silhouette while By Far’s version, called The Rachel Bag became a hot ticket item.
Though with the small bag’s return, it had to take on a new, updated shape in order for it to make a real impact, says Spradlin. Enter: Jacquemus’ Le Chiquito bag from quirky designer Simon Porte Jacquemus’s spring/summer 2018 collection. The mini, rubberized leather purse, whose name comes from the Spanish word meaning “little one” or “baby” typically costs around $500 and is still mostly sold out online. According to The Cut, it measures 4.5 inches by 3.5 inches, meaning that no your phone will probably not fit in it unless you have a flip phone — just in time for Motorola Razr’s return. It’s more likely that you could fit a paperclip, a single earring, or a piece of Dove chocolate in the purse, giving the “what’s in her bag?” trope a whole new meaning.
Becoming wildly popular, the brand also launched an even smaller version called the Le Chiquiti, which costs around $260. Distinct from its sister shape, the little silhouette has a shoulder strap and a mini gold “J” in place of the full Jacquemus name the regular size boasts. Jacquemus also launched a lipstick holder bag because who doesn’t need a separate purse for their case of brown lipstick? Yes that’s back, too. Of course, everyone is following Jacquemus’ lead — you can now find mini bags at Fendi, Valentino, Staud, & Other Stories, and basic bitch stores like Urban Outfitters, Zara, and Topshop.
“I love the tiny bag trend,” says Susan Korn, designer of Susan Alexandra, who makes beaded purses in a range of sizes, including ones that are mini and some that are super-mini, i.e. micro (they’re mostly intended for Airpods). “I think it’s part dada absurdist art and also the genius of fashion which is a commentary on current society.” The creative sees tiny bags as a “giant middle finger” to the errs of society and loves the idea that not everything needs to serve a practical purpose. “Some of the pieces I design are more OBJECT than function and I love that the idea is being embraced.”
So, why is the tiny purse back? Spradlin thinks it’s likely due to two reasons, “One being a reaction to the oversized bag trend which followed the more-room-the-merrier philosophy.” As a stark contrast to bags such as the Celine Trapeze bag or the Saint Laurent Sac du Jour, which were some of the silhouettes that have come to define the past decade, designers started debuting nano-sized bags in the last few years, ushering in a complete silhouette shift. “In today’s context, I see carrying a tiny purse as freedom from expectations and attachments to material items,” says the editor and trend forecaster.
According to Millet, socially, the tiny bag opposes work and imposes itself as an aristocratic object while aesthetically, it lightens and elongates the silhouette and shows a certain ease for the women who wear it. With this in mind, the historian credits the return of the small bag due to the desire for lightness and comfort in an ever faster professional world while it is an indicator of femininity and power. “It is the bag of the woman who has managed to relieve herself of her professional burden,” she says.
For powerful women like Lizzo, wearing a tiny bag on the red carpet could be seen as an “F U” to outdated standards that are often thrust upon them, including the need to be white, thin, and able-bodied in order to sell records and be a successful pop star. Other related standards might also include the need to have a partner (a male one, obviously, who’s also the breadwinner) and the need to bear children by a certain age. Thus, by carrying a tiny purse Lizzo seems to be refusing to carry the burden of others’ expectations of her. But also, she might’ve just liked the damn bag — I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s fucking cute.
Flora Wilds, a San Francisco-based artist, has an entire practice dedicated to tiny bags and their relationship to femininity, power, and youthfulness. “My interest in tiny purses came from my research into 00s pop culture/unpacking my pre-teen/teen years,” the 26-year-old says. “I grew up ingesting images of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and other ‘it’ girls who were often photographed with a tiny purse.” Wilds has been using tiny purses in her performances, sculptures, and installation work. Last summer, she even wore a tiny purse contraption while galvinating across the New York Subway system as a way of questioning what it means to physically and publicly grapple with these objects.
Wilds’ fascination with the largely non-functional status object stems from the idea that tiny bags are indicative of a socially “acceptable” form of capitalist femininity, one that was specifically championed in the 2000s, and most vividly depicted in high school chick flicks of the era. In many films like Mean Girls, the reigning popular girl, i.e. Regina George, with the conventionally attractive boyfriend (who therefore has all the power), carries a tiny purse while the “regular” girl, i.e Cady Heron, who is not noticed by boys, carries a practical backpack. “Approved femininitude and desirability is suggested via the tiny purse, which says you don’t need to bring much with you, you’re keeping it light,” the artist tells Perfect Number. “The tiny purse provokes the question: who can survive off of a credit card, cell phone, and lip gloss alone?” A select few, typically.
Yet lately to the dismay of my closet—confession: I own many tiny purses—the mini silhouette has been losing some of its luster as larger, more exaggerated shapes are coming back into the picture including Opening Ceremony’s Super (Large) Tote and Moschino’s giant backpack. But unlike the past in which only one sized silhouette could be considered trendy, Spradlin thinks the two bag sizes are actually now co-existing. “This is in part due to an emotional reaction to extremities, whether big or small, both making a bold statement in scale alone on either side of the spectrum,” she says. Therefore, as we head into 2020, whether you choose to don a super small purse or a super big one (or even the two together!), don’t fret. Nowadays what matters the most is the attitude or confidence behind your look. After all, that’s where true fashion harmony lies.
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