Aretha Franklin almost always carried a purse onstage. The Queen of Soul was known to collect payments for performances in cash and store it in a handbag, which was close by to avoid being shortchanged.
To some, carrying a purse onstage may seem unconventional, but Black women have a history of being “attached” to their handbags. While their reasoning may differ, contemporary artists like Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, and PinkPantheress seem to follow Ms. Franklin’s lead. To the amusement of fans online, these women have also become known for taking their handbags with them everywhere, including the stage.
Beyond its practical use of holding keys, cell phones, and other miscellaneous objects, the everyday purse has been turned into a vehicle for self-expression, protection, and status symbolization.
“I don’t remember ever seeing my grandma outside the house without a purse,” designer Brandon Blackwood says. “I remember every single one of my mom’s purses — from the small, harder clutches for evening bags to the ones she would choose for everyday.”
For Blackwood, there is a sense of pride in carrying a bag, especially one made by a Black designer. “I know for a big part of it, purchasing my bags and other Black-owned handbag lines was a silent way of acknowledging and supporting Blackness, Black people, and Black creativity.” Influenced by his family and the work of other popular designers, Blackwood eventually grew to develop his own relationship with handbags and now designs pieces that cater to the needs and unique style choices of his consumers — a majority of them being Black women.
Dr. Monica L. Miller, author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, believes that the purse attachment stems from historical necessity. “In the 1940s, women used to have larger purses called ‘freedom bags,’” she says, referring to a time when Black women had limited job opportunities and often became domestic workers. Miller explained that women who were live-in domestics and didn’t want to wear their uniforms outside their wealthy employers’ houses made sure that their purse was big enough to hold a change of clothes. The bag, and its functions, allowed Black women to mitigate class hierarchies once outside of their homes.
“The purse was part of a Black woman’s ‘outside of the house’ uniform, which often was affected by respectability politics,” Miller says. “When you leave the house, you want to look respectable because that ‘respectable’ look was thought, though it wasn’t always true, to be protective. It would protect you from harassment. It would protect you if you could look a little bit ‘above your station.’ It could protect you from all kinds of harassment and discrimination.”
As time progresses, the use of the purse as a status symbol and mode of self-preservation has evolved, though the sentiment remains.
“For Black women, since the turn of the 20th century, carrying around a purse shows that you’re this active member of society who has the ability to go shopping and consume and also just show your style sense,” fashion historian Kimberly Jenkins says.
Though their purse-carrying habits might seem unconventional today, Ice Spice and PinkPantheress illustrate how the purse has become a practical and stylish comfort item for some Black women. By overpreparing for the unexpected moments in everyday life, the question of “what if” becomes less nerve-racking. Taking after generations of Black women who are equally fashionable and nurturing, I find myself carrying my own bags full of “just in case,” and I understand why my mother finds peace in carrying her purse.
“I still believe that for Black women, these new, younger rappers are showing that the purse cannot always protect you, but sometimes it can,” Miller says. “We’re not at the point where going out of the house as a Black woman is always an experience that’s going to be seamless. So, all hail the purse for performing that function.”