By Dr Benjamin Wild
Men’s penchant for accessorising could be likened to a surging tidal wave: it started slowly with tie bars and crisply folded monotone pocket squares; grew stronger and faster with brighter colours and floral prints; became powerful, even menacing, with cigars and a profusion of facial hair that was, at extremes, impossibly manicured and irreverently messy. The flashes of ankle flesh, the profusion of plaid and the ubiquity of hats suggest that the demand for image-altering tweaks is reaching its zenith. The latest trend for clutch bags makes me wonder, then, is this roaring relish for extras soon to make landfall and crash?
There have been two common factors in men’s acquisition of adornments: price and utility. From pocket squares to jackets with contrasting elbow patches, the majority of items worn by street-styled men are practical or, if more decorative, relatively inexpensive. A pocket square has limited utility, but can be acquired for £20. A jacket with contrasting elbow patches is a more practical item of clothing and does not necessarily cost more than a mainstream, and plainer, variant. Reflecting on the multiplicity of accessories and appearance-enhancing procedures that men have purchased over the past eighteen to twenty-four months, I cannot immediately think of a single item that has not been inexpensive or practical, and many have been both.
But then the clutch bag appeared.
This small, typically strap-less, usually leather pouch made its catwalk debut last year in the Autumn/Winter collections of Valentino and Gucci. It was marketed, almost immediately, by several high-street retailers, including Reiss, Zara and Ted Baker, but only now is it becoming ubiquitous. Prima facie, it seems hard to explain why, for the majority of clutches do not compare favourably with other styles of bag when it comes to price and utility.
Firstly, they are not inexpensive. The cheapest that I have seen for this season, by Commes des Garçons, is £75. The majority of clutch bags, by the likes of Balenciaga, Pierre Hardy, La Portegna and Reiss cost over £100; styles by Gucci and Smythson are in excess of £600.
More fundamentally, none of these bags are particularly practical because they deprive owners of the use of one of their hands (nb. the Gucci clutch does have a strap, which might explain the price?). But I think this could be the point. Paradoxically, the fact that the clutch reduces a man’s manual dexterity by half and costs as much as a much larger and more practical bag is probably what accounts for its commercial success.
It is appropriate that the peacock can help me to explain this conundrum. According to Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, the peacock grows bright and large tail feathers to attract female mates. His beauty is a biological trick to improve his chances of leaving more offspring and spreading his genes. This is a convincing argument, but Darwin never explained why peahens should be attracted to large, bright plumage in the first place. A possible answer is that the peacock’s tail is a deliberate ‘handicap’, a term coined by Amotz Zahavi, who suggested that ‘the peacock uses his large tail to advertise to the peahens that his genes are of such quality he can afford to drag his long, ungainly, costly tail around behind him and still survive.’[i] As Mark Pagel explains:
The biological traits of the peacock are relevant to our query about the clutch bag because humans have long exhibited ‘handicaps’ to gain social recognition. Pagel continues his discussion with reference to Thorstein Veblen whose nineteenth-century study of the American Leisure Class profoundly influenced discussions about the wealthy by enunciating the concept of conspicuous consumption, a spectacular form of ‘handicapping’. By actively pursuing costly pursuits and conspicuously squandering key resources, not least time and manual labour, the wealthy revealed their formidable financial resources and unassailable position at the apex of the social pyramid.
Veblen focused on America, but studies of diverse environments, from the eighteenth-century court of Louis XIV of France to the nineteenth-century archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea, reveal that penurious status expenditure has often been necessary to maintain public authority across many cultures.[iii] Moreover, these studies reveal the manner of demonstrating the profligate waste of resources is often similar. A common ‘handicap’, adopted by humans the world over, is to carry a practically useless prop in one hand.
During the eighteenth century, no well-heeled gent would have ventured out of doors without a cane. Whilst some men would have surely needed support for their daily perambulations, the vast majority carried their highly polished, intricately carved and exquisitely embellished stick as a status symbol. Held insouciantly, and rendering one hand useless, the cane suggested that its owner had time and, depending on the quality of the cane, money, to spare.
The occupied hand is significant, for men have often clasped practically useless items to symbolise their singular authority. The ruler’s sceptre or Field Marshall’s baton are perhaps the most iconic examples. Today, these items of regalia are infrequently seen. The cane, unless genuinely needed as a walking aid, has become a historical curiosity.
But even now, men reveal a lingering preference for hand-occupying items through their choice of luggage. The tote, messenger and rucksack, which all have shoulder straps, have enjoyed moments of wide popularity, but the briefcase or satchel is the most common form of holdall used by men. And this is almost invariably carried by hand. The desire to have and to hold is very much a masculine phenomenon. The majority of bags carried by women are worn over the shoulder or are suspended from the elbow and wrist. It is striking, when you look, how few women carry their personal bags in their hands.
To hold something in your hands is to signify intent. Objects are carried for specific purposes and in the majority of situations this involves doing something active. The object therefore signifies the power of human agency, a person’s labour and thought. To hold a practically useless object is to claim a higher social position because of the immediate implication that other people are labouring, even thinking, on your behalf. Your labour and thought is being reserved for something else, something that appears to be more significant.
The briefcase hints at a man’s intellectual prowess and his ability to spend long hours at work and home studying papers. Simultaneously, it hints at his seniority, for he does not need to use his hands to make his living. The briefcase therefore signifies that his life is comfortable and, depending on the quality of the case, affluent. Women use props to demonstrate their social standing when (as of old) they wave a fan, carry a clutch bag to an evening event or, like men, use a mobile telephone. The fact that they do not appear to have the same desire (or need) to limit their manually dexterity by carrying a practically useless prop like the briefcase or clutch bag is interesting for what it reveals about contemporary gender relationships:
By reducing their manual flexibility and carrying a briefcase case, and limiting it still further by cradling a clutch bag that cannot so easily be put down, are men making a self-assured statement about their social standing and authority?
Or, is possession of a clutch bag an attempt to reassert a social position that has long since been eroded by women? Scores of books and articles would suggest that the latter view has more traction.[iv] Either way, the present popularity of the clutch bag follows the trend for headwear and cigars in being a more assertive demonstration of masculinity. This represents something of a sea change in the way that men conceive of clothing accessorises to enhance their appearance and personality. Much will depend on how popular and ubiquitous the clutch bag becomes; the onset of Fall and the desire to keep hands warm in pockets may see it peter out quickly.
But if the trend lasts and encourages more aggressive sartorial trends, troubled waters could lie ahead.
[i] M. Pagel, Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (London, 2012), 154.
[ii] Ibid., 155.
[iii] N. Elias, The Court Society, tr. E. Jephcott (New York,1983); B. Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (Illinois, 1961).
[iv] H. Rosin, The End Of Men: And The Rise of Women (London, 2012); J. Gerzema & M. D’Antonio, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future (San Francisco, 2013).