(Above illustration from [and it's a downloadable PDF, thank you Google Book Search!])
Are you unsurprised, as I was, to learn that the V&A website has a whole section on ? It's a good one, too (also unsurprising) and traces the initial demise of the pocket and rise of the handbag to the radical change in women's fashion of the 1790s, when dresses became too narrow to admit of the wearing of separate pockets tied around the waist under the dress. Because of this, women began to carry little bags, called reticules, which accommodated much less than the capacious separate pockets.
Last night I walked about fifty blocks (intentionally, and with a glad heart). The weather was beautiful — it was a warm soft wet night (okay, I admit it, I like walking in a light rain), and I wasn't carrying a bag.
I had ditched my purse-cum-laptop-bag as it was just too big to dangle off me all night while I stood around clutching my club soda at a party (and I didn't bring a smaller bag with me on this trip). Besides, between the pocket in my skirt and the pockets of my coat, I could carry the essentials (ID, money, lipstick, treo, ipod).
Without a bag, I barely noticed those fifty blocks. It was amazing how freeing it was, to not have a bag to deal with, to shift, to move around to the front of your body and then to the back, to switch from arm to arm. Your arms swing unencumbered; you walk differently, faster. You can shove both hands in your pockets; you can put your hands on your hips while waiting impatiently for a light to change. I also noticed that some people gave me funny looks; whether it was "There's a woman without a bag!" or "Why the hell is she wearing a circle skirt in a grass-green camouflage print?" I couldn't tell.
On my way uptown, as an experiment, I counted women without bags. I saw one. I think she was eight years old, but she could have been nine. (Since this was about 11:45 p.m., I don't think this was a representative sample, and it's not like I stood around the busier intersections making sure I checked everyone, but hey.)
Now, I love bags, I obsess about bags (mostly about whether they have the right size and number of pockets …) and I carry a bag most of the time. But when you have enough pockets, or the right kind of pockets, you can escape the bag and just enjoy the freedom to stride along unencumbered. You should try it …