Looking at how personal daily objects were carried through the ages, hipi creator Su-Lin Chee argues that hip bags have been appreciated by men and women, until changing fashions and lifestyles, rather than better functionality, brought handbags forward. Let’s all empower ourselves with the hands-free advantage of hip bags.
I love bum bags and fanny packs for their sheer convenience. I personally am done with slinging around a handbag as an extra appendage, or otherwise misplacing my phone or keys. How did hip bags then end up the bastard child of the 80s? Yes, they were given a fashion industry pardon in 2018 and mutated into not quite hip bags — slung casually across the chest, or hanging directly under the chin (mustn’t judge!).
The hip bag is still niche, however, compared to the default handbag (or “purse”, in America) with shoulder strap and/or handles. We are out of the 90s’ “it bag” days, when a Louis Vuitton or Hermes was to a woman, what a car was to a man, but the craze for hand candy that everyone else has still seems to take over ladies of certain societies like cabbage patch kids did to kids in the 80s. Hip or belt bags remain largely an aberration, or are they?
As far back as 3000BC in the Alps, Ötzi the Iceman had a leather pouch sewn to his belt. Pouches or purses held by belts or girdles continued to be used by men and women up to the Greek and Roman civilisations. Artefacts from Roman Britain dating from the 700s showed women suspending objects like ear scoop, nail cleaner, and tweezers on chains from their belts.
In fact, images from medieval Europe are littered with people depicted wearing pouches or purses hanging from belts or girdles made of leather or silk.
Depending on their various styles, uses or locales, they had names such as almoners (for alms), pauteners, hamondeys and tasques. They could be worn on top of jackets, or could be accessed through vertical slits called fichets.
In the 1500s and 1600s, fashion moved towards more voluminous silhouettes. Rich women wore hoop frames under skirts, called farthingales (originating from Spain as wooden “verdugado”), and padded “French rolls” which were tied under the skirt. The latter are dressed on Clare Fraser’s hips when she enters the 1700s in the series Outlander (now showing on Netflix).
Men’s hosiery in the 1600s also grew wide, even rotund. These increased dimensions enabled pouches to be placed within, which eventually began to be sewn into the clothing. This heralded the beginning of pockets in men’s trousers.
After the French Revolution of 1789, fashion moved away from tightly laced corsets and huge skirts associated with the aristocracy towards a classic Greek and Roman aesthetic. It was apparently inspired by Napoleon’s wife Josephine and in England, was called the Regency style, when King George III was deemed unfit and his son ruled as Prince Regent. These dresses often had higher “Emperor waistlines”, notable in Jane Austen books and movies.
Since dresses became narrower and sheerer, it was hard to hide pockets or bags within them and women often hand-held little tied bags. These were called “indispensables” or reticules (from the Latin reticulum, a diminutive of rete, or “net”) as many were originally made of netting.
Towards the mid 1800s, the waistline lowered again, requiring tighter bodices and corsets, while skirts again became fuller and bell-shaped with petticoats underneath. More active outfits, such as riding, sometimes still had belt bags, as can be seen on left of this fashion plate from 1863.
Women would sometimes still hang objects or jewellery on chains made of metal or precious metals over their skirts. These came to be called chatelaines, after the French mistress of a chateau who wore a belt for her keys. It conveyed status and authority as the mistress had access to all the locked cabinets in the house.
The chatelaines could also hold purses, watches, spectacle holders, scissors, thimbles, seals, knives and sewing tools. There were chatelaines women took to balls, holding a perfume bottle, notebook, pencil, or a purse for a coin or handkerchief, or for playing golf, with little score cards and pencils. Nurses also used chatelaines to carry around thermometers, scissors, safety pins, etc. Chatelaines slowly went out of style, however, when wristwatches replaced pocket watches.
At the same time, public train travel called for bigger, sturdier bags and luggage makers like Louis Vuitton made utilitarian bags called “hand-bags”. Since they were larger, many objects that used to be carried on the chatelaine also went into the handbags.
Belt pouches may still be seen in traditional costumes, such as the sporran that the Scottish Highlanders wear over their kilts, since these don’t come with pockets.
Overall though, European culture, which went on to influence the modern world, lost hip pouches and pockets in the process of losing the flounces of the 1700s, and in increasing the sizes of hand bags for rail transport in the 1800s.
The result are what I feel are the balls-and-chains of today which lack the hands-free portability of hip bags and quick access to small items. In fact, today’s handbags revel in inconvenience (Vogue magazine candidly admits that “it bags” are not about functionality). To me, this sounds like the elaborate ruff ring collar of the 1500s, equally exclusive and impractical. Feet binding, popular among the Chinese elite from the 900s to the 1800s, signified leisure and wealth, but was finally mocked for its brutality.
Similarly, today’s women idolise bags which weigh down their shoulders and incapacitate their hands, favouring exclusivity rather than functionality. All very well for the top 1% elites who have nannies, housekeepers and personal assistants. But it doesn’t make much sense for everyone else.
Early American feminists fought the loss of pockets for women, believing handbags would never be as practical as pockets. They advocated functional pockets for women’s garments, as men’s trousers had pockets. Today, most women’s clothing made of woven fabric, including jeans for example, do have pockets. But many knits, such as the ubiquitous leggings, lack them. And even if all our garments had pockets, you’d constantly move objects in and out of them.
For all these reasons, I designed and created the hipi. With it, women can liberate ourselves and reclaim the hands-free portability of hip bags in a sleek and subtle form to combine with a variety of outfits. History, and not just the 80s, is on our side.