in praise of ridiculously tiny handbags

Why fashion’s love for ever-smaller handbags isn’t as nonsensical as it may seem.

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May 31 2017, 3:55pm

Coach fall/winter 17. Image courtesy of Coach.

Last November, a collection of eight miniature Hermès handbags sold for $318,589 at Christie's Hong Kong. For comparison, the median house price in the U.S. in 2016 was $233,300. Also for comparison: these bags each measured six inches wide or less and the crown jewel was a bubblegum-pink Birkin (with 18-karat gold hardware) the size of your run-of-the-mill grapefruit.

"There's a growing market for small purses and cross-body bags, and a huge potential," Courtney Ignelzi, the trend editor of Accessories Magazine, told The New York Times last year. A market report by Forbes in January 2016 also noted multiple times "the shift in consumer preferences from larger bags to smaller ones." Ironically, tiny handbags have become big business in recent seasons.

"The smaller the better for me," says Clara Cornet, the buying director for The Webster, who likes to carry a miniature Comme des Garçons bag that someone once mistook for a pencil case. Also in her rotation: Loewe's menagerie of palm-sized animal bags (shaped like elephants, bears, and pandas) and compact crossbody bags by Mark Cross (a brand which re-launched in 2010 with a product range of almost exclusively tiny bags). "Small bags have been trending on the market for quite a few seasons now," Clara says.

Looking at the resort runways alone, there were shaggy micro messenger bags at Dior and petite round crossbodies at Chanel that could be dangled lightly from the fingers of one hand. Last spring, Valentino and Givenchy presented handbags the size of matchbooks. And, for fall, Coach created a patchwork suede bag so adorably small it recalled the human-to-accessory ratio of Derek Zoolander's cell phone.

Valentino spring/summer 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.

If the late 90s and early 2000s were accessorized by oversized It Bags that jeopardized a generation's spinal columns, the handbags of the 2010s seem designed to maintain the physical and spiritual alignment afforded by religious yoga practice.

The handbags of the It Bag phenomenon were defined by exclusivity rather than size, but the vast majority were exceptionally large. Chloe's Paddington bag is said to have weighed three pounds. (Still, 8,000 of them had been sold even before they arrived in stores in 2005, reports Vogue.) Other bulky in-demand styles like the Mulberry Gisele and Yves Saint Laurent Muse had more in common with bowling ball bags than anything you could reasonably call a "pocketbook." Too cumbersome to tuck under your arm, these bags were wielded by the crook of the elbow, making them uncomfortably prominent. Compounding this discomfort was the fact that these $3,000 purses were often referred to as "hobo" bags.

In the physical sense, Coach's fall/winter 17 micro bag is as far away from the weighty accessories of the early 2000s as possible. It is the chlorophyll shot to the Paddington's Venti Mocha Frappuccino. But the bags are equally symptomatic of their times.

As early as 2007, trend forecasters and editors were predicting the end of the It Bag. That year, Eric Wilson wrote about a "handbag bubble" in The New York Times: "There is too much inventory. Prices are absurdly high. And analysts are predicting a slowdown in a market that may have already passed its peak of irrational growth, in 2004." He compared the shrinking handbag market to the troubled U.S. economy at large, and its "looming credit crisis." "That whole [It Bag] phenomenon has changed," Julie Gilhart, then the fashion director of Barneys New York, told Wilson.

The current proliferation of tiny bags seems like a continuing symptom of the economic downturn that began in 2008. Smaller bags not only cost less to make and buy, but they also feel more seemly in less affluent times. The status symbols of the pre-recession seem embarrassing in 2017, like watching old episodes of My Super Sweet 16 or The Simple Life. By contrast, tiny bags appear to be "a reflection of a certain kind of modesty," says Clara.

Carrying a small bag isn't just symbolic of pared-back living, it necessitates it. As stylist Stella Greenspan, who likes tiny vintage bags from the 90s, says, with a small bag "you have no choice but to declutter. Only the essentials fit (if you're lucky)." (She also points out the health benefits: "it's good for your posture.")

"Nowadays you can do practically everything with just your phone and a credit card so I would not call it impractical!" Clara echoes. Though, she also jokes that she refuses to upgrade her iPhone 6 "because most of my bags would not fit a 7."

Dior cruise 18. Image courtesy of Dior.

Sarah Law, who designs bags (many of them tiny) as the brand KARA, also identifies with small bags' minimalism. "Being a fan of Marie Kondo and having a deep love of small things," she says, "It felt like a natural progression and, you know... the more you know, the less you need!" She also attributes a surge in demand for small bags to technology: "In the digital age, where everything is at your fingertips through your phone, people are policing themselves with minimalism." How small would she go? "No limits!"

"'Minimalism' has been popping up everywhere lately, like a bright algae bloom in the murk of post-recession America," wrote Kyle Chayka in The New York Times Magazine last year. In a piece called "The Oppressive Gospel of 'Minimalism," he argued that "part pop philosophy and part aesthetic, minimalism presents a cure-all for a certain sense of capitalist overindulgence." He also pointed out that only those privileged enough to afford clutter have the luxury of decluttering.

You could argue that the tiny bag is the handheld embodiment of this paradoxically indulgent self-denial. A byproduct of the privileged world of punitive juice cleanses and exclusive meditation retreats, beloved of millennial turmeric tonic drinkers with apartments decorated only by succulents.

But that would ignore a secondary symbolism of the small bag. Handbags may sometimes be signifiers of wealth, but they are almost always signifiers of gender. While people of all genders carry purses, at least since the early 1900s, the majority have been women. According to a report by NPD, the U.S. accessory bag market was worth $11.5 billion in 2014, and just $2.3 billion of that was generated by bags designed for men. And what does the image of a woman weighed down by a three-pound handbag project?

The movement away from the enormous purses of the early 2000s seems to run parallel to the rise of fourth-wave feminism and is at least a tiny but telling side-effect of it. If Margaret Thatcher and the large indestructible-looking handbags of her Iron Lady persona exemplify a fading world of female encumbrance, perhaps our (fictional) first female vice-president Selina Meyer exemplifies a possible future. She doesn't carry a handbag at all; she employs a male minion to carry her belongings for her, leaving her hands free to (however bunglingly) help run the country.

Related: Why mules are fashion's most perverse shoes

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Text Alice Newell-Hanson