2nd April 2024 – (Hong Kong) In a pivotal scene from the 1998 hit sitcom Seinfeld, Jerry acquires a sleek European “carry-all” to better manage the clutter of odds and ends his girlfriend is always handing off to him. But when the bag is stolen, Jerry is forced to shout to a nearby police officer that his “purse” has been taken – drawing laughs at the idea of a man carrying such a feminine accessory.

More than two decades later, that punchline now feels outdated. Men’s handbags and purses have emerged from being a niche novelty to a full-blown fashion trend embraced by celebrities, designers and everyday style mavens alike. What was once derided as outrageously feminine is now celebrated as boldly gender-neutral.

This evolution didn’t happen overnight, but rather tracked alongside society’s changing attitudes toward rigid gender conventions. Cultural critics see the rise of the masculine handbag as both a symptom and symbolic victory in the erosion of traditional masculinity ideals.

“Gender is an increasingly outdated ascription when it comes to fashion and accessories,” says Julie Ragolia, a stylist who has worked with Riz Ahmed and LaKeith Stanfield. “We’re moving toward taste being the true arbiter, rather than arbitrary distinctions between what’s for men versus women.”

Indeed, fashion has long been a vehicle for subverting norms and hierarchies around gender, race, sexuality and more. In recent years, that subversive quality has become more overt and emboldened, propelled by a groundswell of political and social forces.

The overturning of Roe v Wade and the raft of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the U.S. and abroad have contributed to a fierce counterculture reframing traditional femininity in an empowering, progressive light. Popular aesthetics like “girl boss” and “girlie-girl goth” channel feminine motifs and styles as almost a form of resistance.

The box office behemoth Barbie and the proliferation of the “indie sleaze” and “marten” aesthetics on TikTok speak to this reclamation of femininity in the zeitgeist. So too does the ascendance of men unabashedly carrying purses – a symbol and celebration of femininity that would have been totally taboo just a few decades prior.

“At a time when women’s rights and bodily autonomy are under assault, there’s something refreshing about seeing famous men embrace a quintessentially feminine accessory like a handbag,” says cultural critic Amanda Brennan. “It’s a subtle act of subversion against patriarchal norms.” The purse’s transition into masculine wardrobes has been a long time coming, slowly accruing micro-moments across the 20th century that hinted at the blurring of gendered belongings.

There were the leather field bags and cross-body satchels carried by World War soldiers, the totes favoured by New Yorker subscribers, and the “haversack” sported by Indiana Jones. All were coded as masculine accessories suited for practical, rugged pursuits.

Over time, those utilitarian options expanded into more decorative and status-oriented handbags and clutches. Celebrity influencers like Young Thug, Harry Styles and A$AP Rocky were early proponents, casually accessorising with designer “murses” and crossbodies from Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

Their nonchalant modelling of the accessory opened the door for rapid acceleration across menswear. At the Fall 2021 runway shows, handbags and purses were omnipresent – from the sleek Saddle at Dior to the oversized proportions of Jacquemus and the embellished leather satchels of Bode. According to menswear buyers, the rigid boundaries between men’s and women’s accessories had already begun to collapse in the early 2010s as luxury brands looked to capitalize on the hypebeast-driven demand for crossbodies and belt bags.

“While the streetwear community drove significant interest in the late 2010s, those trends opened customers’ minds to silhouettes beyond just utility,” says Peter Haury, men’s accessories buyer at e-comm giant East Dane. “Now we’re seeing gravitation towards more traditional handbag shapes from our designer tier.”

Brands are racing to meet this growing demand. Reinterpretations of iconic styles like Dior’s Saddle and Gucci’s Jackie 1961 are being merchandised as gender-neutral objects of desire. Virgil Abloh brought the men’s handbag into the mainstream at Louis Vuitton, and Telfar’s vegan “Bushwick Birkin” was an early cult hit. According to Luca Solca, an analyst at Bernstein specialising in the luxury market, men’s accessories (including handbags) are now a $10 billion business projected to grow by double digits as more players enter the category.

“From our data, we can see that traditional gender boundaries have been falling across apparel and accessories,” says Solca. “The men’s accessories category is an attractive opportunity, seeing as traditional masculinity is being redefined.”

However, as barriers fall, debates around gendered belongings will likely intensify. Conservative pundits have already decried the handbag as an emblem of contemporary “degeneracy” and the “emasculation” of men.

Some noted feminists have questioned whether men adopting feminine accessories is an appropriation of items that originated from the female experience and struggle for equality. However, others counter that dismantling restrictive gender expectations ultimately benefits all.

“The more we blur the lines between what is distinctively male and female, the closer we get to seeing one another as humans, and to knowing each other more intimately,” argues stylist Julie Ragolia.

Ragolia sees handbags as the latest step in an evolving masculine aesthetic that embraces vulnerability, emotional intelligence and rejecting rigid, toxic masculinity. “Is a handbag society’s psychological saviour? Perhaps not. But it’s a meaningful step.” And if men’s handbags do become ubiquitous, we may eventually look back at Seinfeld’s iconic “European carry-all” episode with amusement at just how controversial the accessory once seemed. The punchline will be the assumption that there was ever anything remotely funny about a man wanting to carry a purse.