Are We Returning to an Era of Handheld Purses?

Recent runways seem to indicate yes!

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I’ve always found shoulder-length handle attachments on purses to be somewhat inelegant. You know the ones I’m talking about, those elongated contraptions plastered limply on either side of an otherwise perfect handbag? If they can barely stand up on their own, how are they supposed to inspire enough confidence in the wearer to entrust them with the weight of their entire lives?

You might very well be yelling at me from the other side, “But Sajid, they’re COMFY! They’re PRACTICAL! They fit everything we need AND MORE!” And I agree. Be it our Neverfulls, Goyards, or some variation of the above, shoulder-carried purses (especially totes) are one of the most formative staples of a functional wardrobe. Nonetheless, as far as handbag handles are concerned, there is simply an air about the good old handheld purse – a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will – that renders the overly-lengthy straps of our gargantuan schleppers an unworthy opponent. And if the Fall 2023 runways are any indication, the demure top handle will soon be everywhere!

But first, we must ask ourselves: how have we, as the purse-loving people that we are, been so thoroughly conditioned to deem handheld handbags as the epitome of grace? Well, through our years of collective obsession with all things Hermès, we’ve traditionally come to harbor a notoriously harsh benchmark of elegance: the Birkin.

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Jane Birkin’s original Birkin Bag, image via Christie’s

Going Back to the Roots

Before the Birkin was the Birkin, there was the Kelly from the house of Hermès. But even the Kelly originates from a long line of bags meant to serve as an accessory instead of a functional statement. “Historically,” stylist Rebekah Roy chimes in, “the first handbag or small clutch only held an opera ticket!” And for the majority of the 20th century, the notion of a purse remained rigid, ladylike, and with an unmistakable top handle – not a shoulder strap in sight!

In fact, it wasn’t until February 1955 that Coco Chanel’s 2.55 revolutionized the handbag once and for all, with the interlocking chain handle of her quilted creation meant to go over the arm. Pair that with the increasing female participation in the workforce (especially post-World War II). Soon, designers presented their lineup of utilitarian carryalls for the working woman, armed with detachable strap mechanisms for crossbody wear, à la the Hermès Kelly.

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An attendee carrying the Hermès Kelly at the PFW Fall 2023

The Birkin’s inception, however, somewhat complicated the discourse. Devised as a functional carryall for Ms. Jane Birkin, its absence of a shoulder strap has been a major source of acrimony among buyers. In fact, Ms. Birkin’s original Birkin reportedly included a strap attachment, so it’s only fair to ask, why shouldn’t ours do too? But at the same time, would the Birkin even look good when worn crossbody? Several users have resorted to non-conventional arrangements for the Birkin’s shoulder wear (much to the horror of others), but few have emerged successful.

Plus, given that Hermès itself is all about aesthetics – sometimes to the point of sacrificing utility – it’s perhaps not unnatural for the brand to expect its customers to do the same (practicality is for plebeians, after all). Some purses are simply meant to be hand-carried (Succession’s “ludicrously capacious” Burberry comes to mind); shoved under your arm and brimming with miscellaneous paraphernalia, they simply wouldn’t be elegant! And the Birkin is chief among them.

The Rise of the Handheld Purse

Thus, in many ways, Hermès has redefined what it means to be a luxury brand. The house has everything from eye-watering price points to impeccable quality and dizzying variety. And one of its primary contributions to the handbag world has been the Birkin, which generations of fans, over 40 years into its creation, continue to covet, revere, and generally associate with a sense of refinement. Needless to say, therefore, the B is also what has ushered the idea of an exclusively handheld purse into the modern day.

For decades, brands simply relied on imitating the Birkin as a vehicle of revenue, many consequently introducing their own takes on the design, complete with a shoulder strap. But the idea of a top-handle has since far surpassed the Birkin’s original blueprint, with fashion houses introducing several categories of the style, from casual bucket pails, to more business-chic satchels. Even the humble tote has recently received the top-handle treatment. The Louis Vuitton OnTheGo and the Fendi Sunshine Shopper feature dual-carry options for maximal utility and maximal style!

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The Ferragamo Wanda Top Handle Tote

Why has it had such massive success? Aside from the chic factor, they’re supremely versatile: the late Queen’s black Launer top handles, for instance, feel equally as tasteful as the latest influencer’s dopamine-hued Jacquemus. Plus, a handheld purse makes carrying your stuff a little more deliberate and, by extension, a little more poised. And who wouldn’t love a bit of added confidence injected into their daily ensembles!

And Now, It’s Back Again

Despite their relative popularity, however, handheld bags were never a groundbreaking trend in and of itself, with brands scattering a dainty few into their lineups every season. But come 2023, it appears that the handbag world has been gripped in a veritable top-handle frenzy, driven by the quiet luxury movement thanks, in no small part, to an interest in the old money aesthetic championed on, you guessed it, Succession. And with our obsession towards dressing like the sickeningly wealthy, of course, has come a penchant for the purses they carry, most noticeably on the runways of Dior and Prada. At the same time, Miu Miu, Fendi, and Ferragamo have populated theirs with heftier, office-ready silhouettes and boxy, briefcase-like satchels.

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A top handle bag from the Miu Miu FW23 Runway

In fact, the shift signals a general, over-arching sentiment among buyers. Last year we finally celebrated the end of the pandemic (and, let’s hope, the micro-bag) with lots of bling – think rhinestones, sequins, and an overwhelming appetite for monograms. This time around, it’s classic core that’s steering us toward a sense of normalcy. And it is by riding on this wave that handheld purses are seeing their biggest resurgence yet; basic but in no way boring, they make carrying the minutiae of your daily life feel like a slightly more sophisticated affair, and our Very-Important-Jobs slightly more glamorous. On returning to the physical workplace, what more could one ask for?


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