In the opening scene of Succession’s season four premiere, Tom Wambsgans lambasts Cousin Greg about his date at Logan’s VIP-only birthday party. Greg’s swipe-right sweetheart (whose name is Bridget, for what it’s worth) arrives in a light flouncy sundress and a sturdy pair of cowboy boots, as if she’s en route to brunch in Brooklyn. Her presence is unwelcome from the jump, but Tom zeroes in on her bag: a hulking Burberry crossbody bag in that searing plaid. “She’s brought a ludicrously capacious bag,” Tom says. “What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? Greg, it’s monstrous. It’s gargantuan. You can take it camping. You can slide it across the floor after a bank job.”
While the bag is a $2,890 tote from a luxury brand, it’s carried in an unceremonious, unluxurious way, and sticks out like a checked barnacle in the hyper-wealthy setting that prides itself on unflashy money. But why does a bag that expensive look so out of place? Part of it is because of its size (big) and the way it is held (across the body). It’s the antithesis of quiet luxury because it is so functional. “I think the epitome of wealth is being able to sacrifice one appendage to only carry an accessory,” says SSENSE’s head of digital content, Steff Yotka. “It just implies someone else is around to do all the things you might need two hands for: drive, open doors, carry groceries.” In other words, big, hands-free bags mean work, and in Succession, that’s repellant.
There aren’t as many shoulder bags and crossbodies on the recent runways either, as the “stealth wealth” trend takes over. (Though I could just be noticing this because I recently left my full-time job at Vogue to be freelance, and am no longer hauling anything to the office.) What I have noticed, though, is that the way we carry bags is way more important than whether or not the purse is an It bag.
At the frazzle-dazzle Miu Miu fall 2023 collection, models walked with their top handle bags placed oh-so-ladylike in the bend of their elbow. In some moments, they lightly held them under their arms. At Bottega Veneta, the models didn’t carry those large leather bags on their shoulders, but had them under their arms as if they were weightless newspapers. The same goes for The Row, in which women elegantly walked with bags clutched to their chests. These bags are also large—much like the Succession eyesore—but they aren’t Tom’s idea of a plebeian commuter bag thanks to the unbothered way in which they are carried.
Writer and former colleague Janelle Okwodu sent me a stellar grouping of women with bags in art. One was Woman With a Shopping Bag, a 1930s painting by Clifford Hooper Rowe that depicts a woman in the Soviet Union hauling a shopping bag—considered a masterpiece of Soviet Art. On the contrary, she sent me the painting of Mary Anne (Polly) North from the early 1830s which shows a poised woman delicately holding a bag by her thumb. (Try putting “flat shoes for the subway” into that!”) The latter is using her pint-size purse as an ornament, while the Soviet proletariat is literally dragging her stuffed shopping bag. How functional their bags are directly relates to their social status. Looking back into the Vogue archive, I didn’t really see shoulder bags—or crossbody bags for the matter—before the 1960s. Instead, mid-century women usually carried a clutch or top-handle bag. In the 1960s, the shoulder bag appeared to have come into fashion, which makes sense: More women were entering the workforce. They were on the go.
As a reformed schlepper, I feel for Cousin Greg’s date. When I was working full-time at Vogue, I would trudge to work with a huge monogrammed sack on my shoulder. I’d stuff my bag—a Louis Vuitton Multipli Cite, Y2K-era diaper bag—to the brim. I thought the bag was so chic! Vuitton, right? It was, well, “ludicrously capacious”. The resulting neck pain and knots in my back were not the crux of luxury. The way I was holding it looked like I wasn’t walking into a glamorous office, but rather somewhere in the Pale of Settlement, next to my great-grandmother, hunched over and hauling potatoes into a shoulder bag into the abyss.
There is a sort of ease that comes with having a less-than-purely-functional purse. As Yotka observed, it’s about not needing to have two appendages free. In some cases, it also shows that you’re not overwhelmed with urgency. “People with cross body bags and shoulder bags squishing into their body…it’s about constantly having your things so close to you,” says Emily Farra, director of brand communications at Tory Burch. “Carrying a bag the top handle way, away from your body, is freeing. It’s like, ‘I don’t need to be clutching this to me.’”
I’d love to think if Cousin Greg’s date was carrying her bag with the handle in her hand, as if it were a Birkin, that Tom wouldn’t have so much ammo. But alas, that mammoth bag, slung across the body, rears its head like a siren of the professional-managerial class. But in a space like Logan Roy’s birthday party, nobody wants to be reminded of work.
This article was originally published on Vogue.