There are decorative bags, and there are working bags. But for Rebecca Willis, women don't just carry one—they inhabit it ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011 Exactly when is the pivotal moment at which summer turns to autumn? The first time your bare legs feel that slight chill in the morning air? When you realise your child’s school uniform no longer fits? For me it is when I shake the sand and picnic crumbs from my holiday straw basket, and reach again for the dark, rainproof carapace of my handbag. The proper handbag is la rentrée made concrete—and it often feels as heavy.

I’m not talking about decorative evening bags, or designer bags, like the Hermès Kelly, that are supposed to confer status—they are the thoroughbreds of the bag world. I’m talking about the carthorses in the hierarchy of bagdom, the ones that labour for a living and must do a proper job or face dismissal. A working bag has to tick a lot of practical boxes before you can even think about whether it’s fashionable or feminine or expresses your innermost soul. That is why it is both such a difficult and such an essential purchase.

It becomes almost part of you, this kind of bag, because it is used so often. You don’t wear it as you do a garment, yet it is your constant companion. It’s rather like a small child, wrapping its limbs around you, sitting on your hip, fitting into your waist…and like a child it can cause backache and pull your hair. Maybe it’s even more intimate than that: a woman knows her handbag like a lover—its nooks and crannies are familiar through frequent touch; it interlocks with her, is intensely private and personal. If this seems far-fetched, consider the origins of the handbag: the earliest forms appear in the late 18th century, as a silk purse or pocket worn against the skin (they were, literally, under-clothes). It was reached through a slit in the skirt, and your first name doesn’t have to be Sigmund to spot the imagery of that.

Like changing lovers, changing handbags can be disorientating. It can take a few days to adjust. For this reason some women have multi-pocketed inserts that they transfer from one bag to another—at least then the lovers have the same name, as it were. But to me that feels too non-committal, like not unpacking properly in a hotel room. You need to inhabit the space fully.

And we do inhabit our handbags, filling them, like our homes, with the stuff of life. Which is why they get so heavy. In the interests of science I decided to weigh my friends’ bags. The first one tipped the scales at over 3kg, which is about 5% of its owner’s body weight. That’s the equivalent of three large bags of sugar, or 80 lipsticks, or 21 BlackBerries. Mine is 1.9kg, a mere 50 lipsticks. According to my small sample, anywhere between that and 2.5kg is typical.

This is good news—if you are an osteopath or a chiropractor. Shoulder bags make us raise one shoulder to keep them in place, at least until evolution presents us with a little hook on our clavicles. Bags held in the crook of the elbow put pressure on the lower arm, and even the cross-body style of bag, which leaves you enviably hands-free, is still lopsided. The rucksack is the best solution, bio-mechanically speaking, but I feel vulnerable with my worldly goods on my back where I can’t keep an eye on them. I tried using a purse-belt for a while, but it didn’t last: it looked like a beer gut and I felt like a tourist.

It has been known for men to marvel at the amount women carry in their handbags. Men have pockets; they put a wallet in one, a diary in another, a phone and keys in a third, and think they are ready to go. But are they able to supply, at a moment’s notice, sticking plasters? Travel-sickness pills? A magnifier? Reusable shopping bags? A tape measure? Decaffeinated tea? (These are real examples from my own bag, but I don’t mean to boast.) Isn’t it obvious that to multi-task you need multi-tools? Men carry round a mini version of their desks; women carry a mini version of their houses.

It’s curious how many bags are already heavy before you put anything inside them. My best-ever bag (just 590g when empty) is from MZWallace in New York, which specialises in good-looking, hard-working bags made of lightweight, Teflon-coated nylon. Inside are lots of perfectly sized pockets giving you a place for everything, as if you had a portable filing cabinet. (Hillary Clinton is a fan, but don’t let that put you off.) Before I discovered them, I was constantly rummaging in my bag like a rat through rubbish. People would stop me in the street and tell me my handbag was open—but if I couldn’t find my purse, how could a thief be expected to? Those days are gone; at last there is order in my bag. Now it’s just the house to go.

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life. Her last "Applied Fashion" column was about the bikini.

Illustration by Bill Brown