My favourite part of the international fashion weeks? The street-style photos. I’ve always had the utmost respect for anyone who’s really committed to a look, like Teddy Boys or Mods or punks or the flamboyant figures of the early New York hip-hop scene. And I just love poring over those women who, twice a year, appear on the streets of London, New York, Milan and Paris, with their orthodox-level faith in unusual trouser shapes, kitten heels, intriguing jacket detailing and “What? This old thing?” faces. Because why the hell not?
This season, from what I can tell from my scouring, it’s all about a Gucci bumbag. Yes, I know a Gucci bumbag is as likely to be part of my life as date night with Cillian Murphy or book group with Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Plus, a Gucci bumbag doesn’t have super-sharp cheekbones or piercing blue eyes. Nor does it have the answers to the universe. So, what on earth would I even do with a Gucci bumbag if one magically fell from the sky, bounced off Beyoncé’s hip and then landed in my collection of Topshop faux-leather cross-body bags? Christ, I’m not even on Instagram. What would be the point?
But, as I pored over the pictures of beautiful women wearing the bumbags round their teeny-tiny waists, matching their silk dresses or chequered coats, I marvelled at the possibility this was actually fashion’s most feminist moment – even if it wasn’t intended to be.
Because, funnily enough, feminism isn’t logo T-shirts or phone cases or hashtags. Feminism actively makes life better for other women and I honestly think, on a sartorial scale, a bumbag is the surest sign of progress.
I first had this thought years ago, when I started walking to work. It was an hour or so’s fast-paced walk from a corner of east London to the city centre. Quickly, I became accustomed to having the right “gear” – the right shoes, the right jacket and, of course, the right bag that could transport all the shit I felt was essential to carry from A to B.
But soon I began to wonder – with aching shoulders and a stiff neck: a) what is all that shit I’m lugging around; and b) why aren’t men carrying loads of shit, too?
We’re always the ones expected to have the tissues or the headaches pills or the spare keys. Our bags perfectly echo the reality that we expect women to bear the brunt
I looked in my giant bag and found a laptop, a make-up bag, a book, a crumpled-up magazine, sanitary towels, a change of shoes, a scarf – and on and on it went. And, once I realised I was carrying an edited version of my entire life, I simultaneously noticed how men’s arms seemed to mockingly swing, nonchalantly, free from holding any “shit” whatsoever. I noticed that their stride was bouncier, their hands were empty, their arms were light, their shoulders unburdened.
And all I could think was we’d been had! In a perfectly neat metaphor, we’re always the ones carrying around the extra load, carrying the extra baggage – be it the emotional labour, the domestic labour or the extra workload in the office. We’re always the ones expected to have the tissues in our bags or the headaches pills or the spare keys. Our bags perfectly echo the reality that we expect women to bear the brunt, to be prepared, to handily have the solutions to everyone else’s needs.
And, to rub salt in the wound, they’re also really expensive and desirable. Yes, I know they don’t have to be, but do you remember when “It” bags were actually a thing? When Mulberry named bags after actual women (a long tradition in handbag history; Hermès named its now most expensive bags after Jane Birkin and Grace Kelly)? When the albatross around our necks, carrying loads of metaphorical and figurative shit, was somehow an extension of who we are, somehow a judgement on the kind of women we are? (Around this time, you might not be surprised to hear, I started wearing a really ugly backpack as a statement people mistook for an avid interest in hiking.)
And so, can you imagine my delight when I saw these women – the women who inadvertently decide what we’re all wearing next year – going hands-free? This was better than the teeny-tiny bags that were “a thing” last year (to me, they said Margaret Thatcher – a false, imposed notion of traditional femininity). But bumbags are enabling. They are big enough to put essentials in, but now you can swing your arms with the carefree delight of men. Now, you can catch a ball or pull a pint or climb a wall or build a sandcastle or do a handstand or basically do whatever the hell you like, because you’re not carrying around endless amounts of crap you’ve been made to think you need, worn down with the expectations of others, breaking your back to be prepared for all the many things each day will unfairly demand of you.
Fashion works in mysterious ways – sometimes marvellous, sometimes harmful and certainly sometimes more feminist than others. But, in this instance, it's a liberation of women – and their arms and their aching shoulders. So, chuck out your bucket bags and giant shoppers, rub away the strap marks digging into your skin and throw your arms up in delight – just be prepared to wait patiently for Topshop to produce a more affordable version.