On Satchels and Sexuality

I’m leaning against a bar, swirling Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks and reading Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” when a woman approaches with a scowl and purpose. “Empty that bag and prove to me that you need to carry everything in it” she demands, handbag slung defiantly over her shoulder, arms crossed. “You should not be carrying a bag; men don’t wear purses.”

One might expect such a confrontation would catch me off-guard, but this interrogation is common. For the past 15 years, I’ve carried what is derisively referred to as a man bag.

More frequently than it should, this accessory elicits stares, comments, scorn and on rare occasion, compliments. In the seeming view of many, my bag further erodes the lost beacon of masculinity, the fall of the Western World.

For me? It’s just a bag. I’ve come to see it as a Rorschach Test that reveals more about others than me.

With deliberate movement, I take another swallow of scotch, set the tumbler down slowly, and ceremoniously two-hand lift my black Ferragamo onto the counter, exhibit A in this darkened courtroom drama.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I state flatly sans eye contact.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I state flatly sans eye contact.

The innuendo is intended; the juxtaposition of satchel and sexuality amuses me. I’ve come to understand that most who question my bag are speculating about my sexual proclivity. Somehow, a smallish bag carried diagonally over my shoulder indicates that I am physically attracted to men.

This stricture, reinforced by otherwise open minded Seattle liberals, is intended to remind me that there are distinct identifiers to what is and is not permissible for straight men. My mere presence in this bar on this night is too much for my interlocutor. All that’s good and right in the world must be protected, and this culture cop is on the beat.

In fairness, this normativity doesn’t just come from the straights. I was once kissed unexpectedly by a gay man, who, when I pushed back, protested “but you dress so well!”

Full disclosure? I like tailored shirts, nice suits, polished shoes and trimmed nails. I recognize that each of these, in addition to the sack slung across my shoulder, qualify me as something completely other than “American straight man.” I get that I am breaking the cultural laws of the Marlboro nation.

If I do dress differently than expected, it’s because doing so feels natural to me. I was raised around clothing, and acquired a taste for it early. Among my family, which contains multiple non-conforming individuals, there’s a standing joke that I’m the straight one, teasing out the irony of the straight brother who dresses more fastidiously than his gay sibling.

My departure from the American macho ideal began innocently when I bought an Apple Newton in the 90’s. Pockets were no longer practical. An added advantage was offloading my wallet, keys, phone, change and other small items from my pockets. That was a revelation; no longer did I sit slightly askew due to the bulk of my billfold; no longer did my keys bulge over my thigh.

That first bag was more like a clutch (there I go again!); it had a wrist strap and I carried it in my hand. The downside to this was apparent; I was always without the use of one of my hands. The answer was a shoulder strap. So, I found a small bag just large enough to carry my arsenal, and the rebellion was begun; I became “other.”

With the demise of the briefcase, many men now carry either a backpack or a messenger bag. Neither work well for me for two distinct reasons. First, they are huge; to fill them requires me to carry more than I need. Second, they don’t work well with a suit or more dressed-up attire.

Jokes about purses, murses, man-bags, discussions about Indiana Jones and The Hangover happen with such frequency that I simply go to canned laughter and feigned interest in the topic. I’d rather ask my inquisitors why they are so troubled by something as benign as a bag? What lies beneath their own insecurity?

To be fair, I too have my rules about the style of bag I carry. The leather must be of a certain sheen: not too shiny. The strap must be wide enough to convey sturdiness, and yes, a certain masculinity. But even here, if I care too much about the details, this is a strike against my inclusion in the man club.

I feel no need to advocate that others carry a bag. I am not called to be an activist for a world made better through practical accessorizing for men.

I feel no need to advocate that others carry a bag. I am not called to be an activist for a world made better through practical accessorizing for men. I don’t care that others prefer to carry all their shit in their pockets. I just like to carry mine in a bag. Were I an advocate, its sole purpose would be to increase the market for such bags, affording me a larger inventory of styles.

Having travelled a bit in Europe and Asia, I’ve learned that the derision I face is mostly localized to our culture. Bags on men is much more common elsewhere.

So, back to the woman in the bar. I obliged her request, and item by item, laid them out on the polished-wood bar, largest to smallest: Book. Phone. Wallet. Keys. Headphones. Gum. Lip balm. Quarters, dimes, nickles, and a few items I won’t detail here. As the stack mounted, her stance softened, her arms unfolded. It seems she could not find argument with any of them, so she resorted to the trump card.

“Are you gay?” she brazenly asks.

“No, I’m Italian,” I respond. She sighs, turns, and leaves.

A man in a Seahawks jersey pulls up next to me, filling the now vacant space.

“Dude, is that a murse?”

“Yeah,” I intone. “Just like Chewbacca carries.”

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  • Mercedes

    I love this article, I am from Europe so I have seen dreesed man in suits and wearing a satchel, and I when i see a man wearing one I just dont naturaly think it has to do with sexuality. My dad carrie one with his suits and I always thought he was a Dandy.

    When I traveled to europe with my fiance he wanted one so I got him one as a present, now when he wears it in the USA lands, he gets coments, and weird looks, and while some may be curious to ask why he wears one, we both internaly wear a grin to see that vintage wear is very cool, and has a purpose! Thank you for posting this :) <3

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    Hmm . . . I never noticed. Next time, I’ll watch for it and ask. ;-)

  • Allena

    I love your “Manbag” and how you dress. You rock it.

  • http://surreal.istic.org/ Dan

    Man bags are increasingly popular in the UK, but it wasn’t until a trip to Paris told me how ubiquitous they are there that I made the switch myself. For years I’ve exclusively worn cargo pants, using the extra pocket capacity for phones, wallets, &c., but lately I’ve started wearing jeans more, so I was open to the idea of a replacement. Also, as I get around town by bike, I often find myself going out in the evening so wanting somewhere to keep my lights, but not wanting to take my big pannier bag: like a rucksack, it’s overkill for just a pair of lights. I’ve found a tiny manbag a good solution. I have two (to match my jackets, of course), and they’re just big enough for a wallet, a phone, a bunch of keys, and a pair of bike lights.
    I do get comments occasionally, but they’re pretty evenly split between appreciative and derisive.

  • jl@sf.us

    This week’s *purse* is red, tan and deep gold leather, with two straps about 9/16 inch wide.

    Is that wide enough to be “manly”?

    The subtle, deep-toned leathers nicely complement the deep auburn, shoulder-length women’s wig I’m sporting this week. It’s totally cute, love the color, love the cut, love the feel as it tickles my shoulders in a bright fuchsia tank top. I’m delighted with the contrast between the bright, bold, primary colors that’re much my style preference; bonus points that bright colors are “all the fashion” this year. The deep auburn is highlighted with jet black locks of hair, blending nicely with my eyebrows and incessantly stubbly 5 o’clock shadow. “Clean” shaven is relative. Even a barber’s shave lasts only about an hour, before the shadow shows.

    There’s another dozen wigs for me to choose, depending on my “Mood for a Day”, (Yes, that’s a reference to ‘Yes’). The wigs are a range lengths, colors and styles. They make this old, bald, fat, average Joe feel almost good looking. With a little eye makup for drama, some good covering makeup to smooth the inevitable wrinkles, and a touch of blush and bronzer, I remove 15 years from my age, from my sense of age, and from my world view.

    And this is bad, because it fails the “Comply with Others’ Expections of Attire, Accessories, and Recreational Chemistry Use”.

    Naturally, I gravitate towards other women’s garb. Gals’ shoes are a lot more fun than loafers, wingtips, and a couple kinds of athletic shoes. Sandals, wedges, heels, and boots. All great fun in the wearing, in comparing and shopping.

    I’m with you, Imelda! An adoptive girl just *can’t* have too many handbags, shoes, bar clamps or socket sets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Hi jl…All style should begin with what makes you feel good. On that score, it sounds like yours is perfect!

  • Fran Yule

    Well written! Style about style!

  • http://sexatdawn.com CPR

    Coincidentally, I got me a murse yesterday, then was checking your site today and remembered this excellent post. They’re all excellent.

  • Jamie Vickery

    Hi Tim – I found this via your podcast interview with Christopher Ryan. Great podcast…so, what brand/style of bag do you carry? Do you still carry the Ferragamo?

  • Timothy

    Hi Jamie…

    Welcome! I do still carry the Ferragamo. It’s black, so I tend to wear and carry black in the Fall/Winter. In the Spring/Summer, I carry a brown Kenneth Cole that I like a lot, but which they no longer make. Chris introduced me to a leather smith who makes custom bags, and I’m planning on putting in an order for a custom bag soon. :-)

    Tim

  • Jamie Vickery

    Thanks for the reply. Chris mentioned Saddleback Leather during the podcast. I own several products from Saddleback (wallet, gadget sleeve, etc) and have been thinking of taking the man bag leap and purchase on of their satchels. I can attest that their products are excellent quality and very masculine. Plus, the owner, Dave Munson has great stories about all his travels, early years of living in Mexico while starting the company, etc. That said, I’m sure a custom bag from a quality leather smith would be amazing.

  • alex rivera

    Tim,
    Your story was very enjoyable, and very well written i should add. I recently bought a nice shoulder bag, a real nice Dr. Marten croc-skin looking bag, questioning and feeling a little insecure and how people might react upon. I know I shouldn’t give a damn, but reading your page made me feel better about myself.
    Peace

  • Timothy

    Wear it proudly Alex. :-)