The Burden (And Beauty) Of The Bottomless BagS

Retailers claim womens' bags are getting lighter. Our backs - and the crushed fig Newtons on the bottoms of our purses - say otherwise:

The reason for the downsize, according to British chain Debenhams, is the compact, multi-purpose devices: an iPhone takes up a lot less real estate than a hulking cell and disc man, and a kindle's lighter than a hardcover. But this presupposes that it's electronics that are the issue. And for some of us, that's really ancillary. There's either a ton, or the bare essentials. (As Latoya puts it, "my midsize purses get no play.") Granted, I'm someone who's notorious for an unwieldy load that routinely breaks purse straps, makes doctors tsk and friends laugh when I produce a long-forgotten sandwich or a small brass whale from its depths. The truth is, I don't know why my purse is so friggin' heavy. Yes, my wallet's on the big side. And, true, I always need at least two books in case my mood changes. But this does not explain it so, in the interests of journalistic exploration I emptied it out and found:

- a dessicated clementine

- what looks like the remains of a pumpernickel roll I took home from a German restauarant a few weeks ago

- 4 pamphlets from Jehovah's Witnesses

-Large water bottle

-1 postcard from the Noble Maritime Collection of Staten Island

- 1 glasses case with sunglasses

-3 dry-cleaning tickets

-1 "headache" aromatherapy roller that I suspect is a fraud but I still carry

-Advil packet

-Ticket stub to The Red Shoes

-3 band-aids, assorted sizes

-$3.71 in change

-1 tube Crest toothpaste

-1 book matches from El Quixote

-Uni-ball pen

-Felt-tip pen

-Salvation Army pencil

-2 almonds

-2 plastic bags

-Tampon

-day-planner

-The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

-Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

-Historic Shops and Restaurants of New York

-Marble notebook

-2 pieces Hanukkah gelt

-Crushed Peppermint Pattie

-Assorted beads

-Vintage costume jewelry brooch

-2 pairs of gloves

-Antique doll shoe

-Vintage ashtray in shape of Alaska

-Tiny plastic cigar

-Business card of random old man I met outside restaurant

-Glass bottle, Underberg herbal cordial

-Scrap of fur

-Keychain containing 12 keys, most for old apartments

-3 batteries, asst. sizes

-Cast-iron Civil War general which I'd forgotten picking up at a stoop sale and which may be a big part of the problem.

...in other words, nothing much out of the ordinary. And yet my bag is so heavy! Margaret understands fully. Says she,

I usually have a heavy purse. I guess I'm worried I'll find myself in the middle of the wilderness in desperate need of breath mints. My friends know that I always carry too much stuff so they'll ask for tissues or Purell, which I don't mind. I do object to carrying stuff for people. A friend once asked me to put her whole clutch in my huge bag because she was tired of holding it.

Katy, meanwhile, has just cut out "purses" altogether.

I actually carry a diaper bag (it doesn't look like one, I swear). It's huge. In it, I have the essentials (wallet, keys, etc) and then some (right now I've got a water bottle, lotion, index cards, mini stapler and extra staples, hair brush, clean pair of underwear, beef jerky, an extra contact case and two books). I have a couple of smaller purses I sometimes use, but the diaper bag is just so useful (plus the inside is sort of plastic-y, so when I spill stuff or leave food in there for a long time its easy to clean.)

Says one of our interns, Madeleine:

My friends and family refer to it as my "diaper bag" although it's not—it is the same much-abused, indestructible Gap beach bag I've had forever...Normally my purses have a couple diet soda bottles for emergencies, wallet, books, laptop and charger, makeup if I'm going somewhere, and probably a bag of grapes. it's a pretty effective weapon and yes, my right shoulder is always killing me.

And we're not even talking the work-specific stuff. Jenna remembers from her modeling days,

I would lug around my book, which weighed about as much as my laptop, plus wallet, plus a camera, plus a phone, plus a bikini for those SURPRISE! IT'S SWIMWEAR/NUDITY! castings, plus high heels, plus powder compact, mascara, concealer, hairbrush, plus a bag of almonds, muesli, and dried fruit. And a book or magazine to read on the subway. Shouldering that load was basically brutal, so these days I favor much smaller purses that fit, at most, cell phone, keys, wallet, a folded up New Yorker. The good thing about winter is that most all of that will fit in your coat pockets. Except then I don't know what to do about coat check.

And Anna Holmes says that although she's streamlined, her bag is prey to one of the top three most annoying bag menaces: broken cigarettes (the other two are, of course, shortbread cookies and fountain pens.) Dodai, now reformed, sticks to "MILK! (money, ID, lipgloss & keys.)" This is obviously far healthier for any number of reasons and her back will thank her. As another intern points out, "there's been a significant backlash against the giant bag, I've noticed. Boys think they're dumb. Well, boys, you get more pockets than us, deal with it." It's funny that she should say that when the reissued 1930s volume Better Than Beauty: A Guide to Charm dictates explicitly that "men" equate "an untidy purse" with "an untidy mind." In my case, my bottomless purse is something my beaux initially find adorable and then come to find annoying and somewhat disturbing. Certainly they don't seem prey to the "Be Prepared" (or whatever the hell it is I am) mind-set to which so many women succumb. Maybe some of it has to do with that famous Esther Tallamy quote: "I'm as self-contained as a turtle. When I put my key in the ignition, I have my home right behind me."

Lighter Gadgets Mean Lighter Purses, Study Finds [Reuters]