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Clutch Bags Are Terrible ‒ Why Do We Carry Them?

Whenever I go for a walk or travel anywhere with my children, they will inevitably hand me something to carry — a coat when they get too hot, or perhaps a banana skin. Either they have mistaken me for a valet, or they have realised one of the fundamental tenets of existence: it’s a drag to carry stuff.

Which is why I’m suspicious of clutches, even if they are the de facto accessory of party season. To me it makes no sense to encumber yourself with a strapless bag that you may need to juggle with a martini glass, a canapé and a phone like some sort of cocktail-hour clown.

Trying to keep a clutch jammed under an unflatteringly squished upper arm like a set of bagpipes renders me frozen down one side. Of course, you can place said bag on a table or a chair. But even at an event where someone is unlikely to steal it, there’s a sense that, as with a naked flame or an embarrassingly outspoken boyfriend at a family party, you shouldn’t leave it unattended.

There’s always the option of dumping it on your partner. Surely the traditional Church of England marriage vows should be amended to read “to have and to hold (your clutch bag)”.

“I think a clutch is high maintenance in a way that most of our wardrobes aren’t any more,” says fashion writer Naomi Pike. “They speak to being someone who has an assistant.” Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

A devotee of an interesting bag, Pike only has one clutch — a pale pink crystal style by Benedetta Bruzziches that oozes old-world glamour. She acknowledges that it is impractical but uses it counter-intuitively during the day, offset with baggy jeans, black patent pumps, a cashmere sweater and a fake fur coat from Shrimps.

Becky Fatemi, a partner at Sotheby’s International Realty, has more than 70 clutches, and doesn’t find them awkward to hold: “I nestle my bag right under my armpit and give it a little grip to hold it in place, or hold it like a dossier. I think it gives a look of power.” For a work event, she likes to pair a suit with a square or rectangular shape, and “at a glamorous house party I might go for rounder and more dainty”.

One of her favourites is a black Azzedine Alaia that fits her two phones, mini hairbrush, battery pack and mints. Fatemi is also a fan of the oversized pouch for daytime, deeming it “cool and slick”. Her view of my aversion? “You need to get practising!”

The clutch as we know it emerged in the 1920s, offering a more streamlined alternative to the leather and tapestry bags with snap closures favoured in the 1910s. According to Marnie Fogg in her book Vintage Handbags, “made of Bakelite and Perspex, in the clashing colours and vibrant patterns of the Art Deco movement and the decade’s obsession with all things Egyptian, the clutch represented the aesthetic preoccupations of the age.”

As flappers broke the taboo of applying make-up in public, decorative vanity cases also became popular. Dunhill’s Lytup bag glowed on opening and, notes Fogg, “according to Tatler magazine in May 1922, ‘it was invaluable in a taxi or wherever the lights were dim.’” In 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels introduced its sophisticated take on the vanity and called it the Minaudière.

Clutches coexisted with strap bags for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. In the ’30s, envelope evening bags captured silver-screen glamour, and in the ’50s novelty styles made from wicker or Lucite reflected the postwar boom and increased optimism. Jacqueline Kennedy was partial to a clutch, carrying a rectangular foldover style for the inaugural ball in 1961 and a black Judith Leiber snakeskin frame bag to the opera. Throughout the 1980 film American Gigolo, Lauren Hutton tucked a woven Bottega Veneta clutch under her arm, a style the brand revived in 2017.

But why have clutches persisted? According to Cameron Silver, owner of LA vintage boutique Decades, the “marvellously anachronistic accessory” has remained popular for evening, red carpet and royals because it often has “a very architectural, simple silhouette which complements the more polished look without the distraction of excessive straps and hardware”. Silver also points out that he is seeing more men carrying simple pouch or clutch bags.

So, in the party season, out come the clutches. Granted, the more kooky bag is a potential icebreaker that could act as shorthand for “I’m decadent and worth talking to.” But it also could signal nothing more charismatic than “Hi, I thought it was a good idea to spend £750 on a JW Anderson resin bag resembling a frog.”

Another of JW Anderson’s mad clutches — in the shape of a pigeon — took flight online when carried by Sarah Jessica Parker on set of the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That. Pictures of Parker filming a shopping scene show her looking overburdened with a phone, the pigeon and a boot. The phone wouldn’t even fit in the bag. I rest my case.

But maybe my clutch aversion is actually a case of sour grapes because I haven’t got the knack. Am I a strap-dependent snowflake? Like shoulder-robing (aka wearing your jacket as a cape), the half-tucked shirt or wearing ultra-high heels without adopting a C-3PO walk, effortlessly carrying this style can also be a status flex. In Phoebe Philo’s new collection lookbook, models grasp their bags even though they have handles. It’s as much front row as it is first lady.

A compromise might be a little silk pouch with a small loop, to be dangled off the wrist, but I’m not aiming for that Bridgerton look.

I think the winner is a clutch with a fine detachable chain, so slim that it just looks like a piece of jewellery. The Row comes up trumps with the Aurora satin clutch with detachable chain — however, it is £1,780 (S$2,980, matchesfashion.com). Loeffler Randall is more affordable and has a great range, including the Baily plissé-shantung clutch (£280, net-a-porter.com). Or I could rent Simone Rocha’s pearlescent egg with a shoulder strap resembling a string of pearls (from £52 for four days, hurrcollective.com).

Whatever the drawbacks of clutches, though, they are infinitely preferable to the horrors of the famous “ludicrously capacious bag” from HBO’s Succession. When cousin Greg brings a girl to media titan Logan Roy’s birthday and she turns up with a giant gauche Burberry handbag, Greg’s boss Tom Wambsgans exclaims, “What’s even in there, huh? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail?”

For a party, go small or go home.

Source: CNA Lifestyle