How do you define a purse vs a shoulder bag vs etc.
July 11, 2019 10:08 PM   Subscribe

What makes a bag constitute a purse rather than a shoulder bag, messenger bag, briefcase with strap, etc.? Is it the apparent gender of the wearer, what the manufacturer labels it as, the use, the contents, or some other factor?

Also, can a tote bag be a purse? Does it need a way to close the top to be a purse?

Finally, does the shoulder the bag is worn on matter (strap crossing chest vs not)?
posted by Hactar to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A messenger bag has a particular traditional form-factor that distinguishes it, or used to: it has a large, full-width flap coming from one side of the bag, over the top and down the entirety (or nearly so) of the other side. They usually don't have handles. Latching down the flap is somewhat optional

Soft briefcases may come over in the same fashion, but are mostly there to cover the top and little more, and then like all briefcases, they latch closed in some fashion-- could be as simple as a belt-buckle, or something more complicated. They always have handles, whether they have a shoulder-strap or not. Because in the case of a single handle it's mounted atop the flap, the flap has to have a good latch to be carried. In the case of the double-handle, the top has to be able to closed without interfering with either handle. And once in a while you see a briefcase (always double-handle) that just pinches shut at the top and latches with some belts or similar, no flap.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:17 PM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

In Australia, a purse is a smaller item for women to carry money in - the equivalent but not the same shape as a man's wallet. It fits into a handbag or briefcase, but not a pocket.
posted by b33j at 10:18 PM on July 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

A purse is something I think of as being just big enough to carry the things it normally carries and isn't much bigger than that. A tote bag is not usually carrying around as much as it can hold. Purse-like things like sunglasses and wallets rattling around at the bottom of a tote bag would be fine until you put a bunch of other stuff on top of them and then it becomes hard to get that stuff out. A messenger bag carries purse stuff and bigger going to work stuff like lunch, laptop, gym clothes.
posted by bleep at 10:21 PM on July 11, 2019

My mother has been searching for the perfect purse since the Eisenhower administration, and I have been dragged along on purse safaris since before Watergate. I never thought I'd have cause to use this knowlege, and I'm going to try to hit all your questions. (As b33j noted, location will cause variance. I'm in the US.) Here goes:

In general, a purse has some sort of closure -- a snap, a flap (which has a strap or a buckle, which may be a fake, hiding a snap), a zipper, a drawstring. In general a tote bag (see more, below) usually doesn't have a closure, but it might.

-- a purse is a handbag is a pocketbook; it's a bag of indeterminate size (from small, strapless clutch or evening bag to a large, fairly unstructured hobo bag) designed to carry your daily things: wallet, phone, glasses, sunglasses, cosmetics/compact/mirror, etc. Outside of an emergency, you're not going to put paperwork/files in a purse.

-- a shoulder bag is a subset of a purse with one or two straps long enough to carry it hanging from one's shoulder.

-- a crossbody is a subset of shoulder pags, with just one strap, long enough for one to wear the strap across one's chest (almost like a sash) and tends to be a flatter form bag. You can wear any shoulder bag with a long enough strap across your body if you like, but a fashion-conscious person would likely note the difference between a cross-body bag (flatter) and any old shoulder bag. Crossbodies with the flatter form were designed for travel and really caught on over the past decade. It's not that women weren't wearing shoulder bags across their bodies before; we just weren't calling them that.

If it has a very short strap, and the bag is very small, it's a wristlet. If the bag is "normal" size but the strap(s) is/are too short for you to put your arm through and let it sit on your shoulder without you sort of squeezing it to your body, it may be called a handle bag (colloquial, outdated), under-the-arm bag, or a variety of not-terribly-popular-or-agreed-upon terms. The point is, if the straps aren't long enough for the bottom of the bag to get somewhere from waist to thigh height, it's not a shoulder bag. Just call it a purse unless you're writing for a fashion blog.

The shoulder upon one which wears a shoulder bag has no significance, and throughout a long day, one might switch between shoulders. The same is true with regard to cross-body bag-wearing, though I find that if I wear a cross-body on my left shoulder, I have more trouble maneuvering my stuff in and out of it.

-- a tote and a tote bag are not the same thing, but depending on your age and where you are in the country, you may shorthand to calling a tote bag a tote. (My mother would look at you askance if you did.) A tote is a style of purse: it's larger, on par with a hobo bag in terms of the larger size, and likely has two straps made of the same material (leather, quilted fabric, etc.) as the purse. Totes may have straight sides, but some are notable by the fact that the angles between the bottom and the sides are obtuse. It likely has a zipper or at least a snap closure at the top.

A tote bag, however, is a canvas or cotton thing, usually with two loops for carrying by hand (one on each side, or piece, of material, but held jointly) and would be used for carrying a pile of papers (if one didn't have a nice messenger bag, backpack, or briefcase), a few groceries, or books to return to the library. Picture a pillowcase with loops attached for holding it. Tote bags generally don't have a closure at the top, but they can, and nicer ones can have a zipper.

Again, a tote is a design style of purse; a tote bag is what you get from NPR. Some stores in some parts of the country will refer to a tote-style handbag as a tote bag, but again, this displeases the purse maven I know best.

-- a messenger bag is a larger, more structured bag, usually of leather but can be of cloth, with a shoulder strap that can be worn straight down or across the body. Some people may call it a satchel, but strictly speaking, a satchel has slightly different structure and is usually a big stiffer. A messenger bag is basically a soft, casual alternative to a briefcase. A key characteristic of a messenger bag is that there is a large "flap" -- an extension of the back of the bag -- that flips over the top of the bag and covers the front of the bag. It may cover a closure (like a zipper) but it also tends to snap or clip to the lower front of the bag to secure everything.

In the US, due to gender norms, men would not generally claim (or be said) to be carrying a purse, handbag, pocketbook, or tote. They might be willing to say they were carrying a tote bag; they'd definitely be comfortable with saying they're carrying a messenger bag. In general, a man carrying any bag other than a backback, messenger bag, or grocery-toting tote bag is more likely to have it teasingly called a "murse."

All of these styles, like the intricate naming of shoe styles) is determined by the past hundred+ years of purse/handbag design.

This chart in Redbook isn't ideal, but it gives you some visuals.

Oh, lordy, I've become my mother.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:34 PM on July 11, 2019 [100 favorites]

A messenger bag or briefcase have distinctive shapes. A purse is a subset of shoulder bag (though some purses do not go over the shoulder).
posted by Lady Li at 11:35 PM on July 11, 2019

And today I learned that some people use tote to mean something other than an abbreviation of tote bag. I'm not a purse expert but am a native speaker of English. Huh.
posted by Lady Li at 11:38 PM on July 11, 2019

IMO, (perceived) gender of the wearer plays a the biggest role (cf. purse vs "murse").

I think, for me (cis, gay guy), a purse is something a women has in order to hold items that would normally be a in a man's pants pockets (keys, phone, wallet, checkbox--I guess compact and make-up-related items--because, apparently, women don't deserve functional pockets or some such shit).

Shoulder bag, messenger bag, tote, etc. are more form factors, IMO--though probably considered masculine or "gender-neutral". If dolled or femmed up and worn by a woman, one could say a "tote" is a "purse". And some purses/bags rival a messenger bags/carry-ons w/r/t/ capacity.

I think, really, it does come down to gender presentation. If it looks femme (flowers, lace, "feminine" decorations), it would probably be read as a purse; if just black with "heavy" latches, probably some variation of a non-gendered bag (tote. brief case, etc.)

For instance, I bought this bag for an international trip. It's called a messenger bag--but it would surprise me that there are women's purses that hold more. Also, I have a cis, het guy friend who has recently been wearing a side bag to hold his phone, etc. It looks similar to my link (fabric, color, latches, etc.) and I wouldn't be surprise at all if it's not marketed as some type of purse (vs utility bag). Whereas, + flowers = purse!
posted by MikeKD at 12:06 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

The word "purse" itself seems to have gone pretty downmarket. You're likely to see higher-end manufacturers using any of the panoply of terms discussed here rather than calling one of their offerings a "purse." Grammas have purses in which they keep ten-year-old gramma candies like Brach's. That said, it's a pretty generic term.

However, I would find it weird to hear anything called a "purse" that didn't have some form of top closure. I don't think I'd ever call an open-top tote bag a "purse." I also think there's a limit on size. I have this bag and at half the size you might call it a purse but I never think of it as one.
posted by praemunire at 1:05 AM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

To echo beej's answer, the use of the word 'purse' to mean something large with a shoulder strap seems to be largely North American. Purses in the UK are smaller (more of a large wallet), carried inside a larger bag, and just contain money and plastic cards. You might also carry a separate coin purse.
posted by pipeski at 2:55 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

purse/handbag/pocketbook to me is whatever baggish item i am using to carry the stuff i need with me when i am Outside, such as wallet, phone, metrocard, keys, water bottle, extended levels of ID, etc. it's not usually a shoulder bag or a clutch or anything like that but no matter what kind of bag is doing the holding, its purpose is to be purselike.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:19 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

On gender presentation: I am in the US and have a nice leather satchel that's big enough for a wallet and a paperback, and although I'm commonly (incorrectly) perceived to be a woman, it's almost always referred to as my "bag" by others ("I love your bag"/"your bag is open” etc.). Perhaps "purse" really is just that out-of-favor? But I like to think that its neutral-to-masc aesthetic is influencing their choice of noun despite my body-type.
posted by teremala at 5:26 AM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am surprised that some people are lumping pocketbooks in with purses. A pocketbook is a form of wallet, not a form of purse, IMHO. Specifically the longer, ladies sized wallet that would hold a chequebook flat, along with slots for credit cards, maybe a zippered change compartment, etc - not a fold over wallet like men use. But maybe that's a canadian usage?
posted by jacquilynne at 5:28 AM on July 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

There’s a whole episode of Friends about this where Joey wants to carry a bag and gets shunned because it’s too feminine or something.

Bags get less gendery as you get closer to universities and campuses where everyone needs to carry stuff around, but you still generally don’t call a man’s bag a purse.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:31 AM on July 12, 2019

I share jacquilynne's understanding of pocketbooks from the Midwest. They might have a wrist strap and I understand people call very similar things "clutches", but when you start adding phone pockets or a longer strap, it's not just a pocketbook anymore.
posted by teremala at 5:35 AM on July 12, 2019

Also, as an aside, I've never heard an actual human being in real life call any of the above bags a "murse". That term seems to be exclusive to gender-panicking newspaper columnists. The actual "masc" terms would be either "messenger bag" or "satchel", regardless of whether that accurately describes the bag in question.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:58 AM on July 12, 2019

I've never heard an actual human being in real life call any of the above bags a "murse"...

I carry a purse and at least once a week someone calls it a murse.

To me, the "problem" with the word purse is that when men started carrying small shoulder bags (because practical!), the derogatory word murse was coined (man-purse). Men viewed this as wrong or wimpy -- "It's just a bag!" -- and of course men always have to have their own way so instead of men being fine with carrying a purse, the word purse started leaving the lexicon and instead, even things that were unequivocally a purse being carried on a woman's shoulder was now just being called a bag.

The item became "non-gendered", which is great, but it did so via patriarchy, which is bad.

I carry one of these or these with me whenever I am outdoors (I have multiples colors of each style). To me, they are absolutely purses and whenever a man tries to tease me and calls mine a murse, I say something like, "We didn't start calling pants wants when women started wearing them. Just call it a purse. It's an object. It doesn't need a gender."

Note that I am Canadian. I see many people carrying Freitag bags around (the manufacturer of my bags), but I have yet to see another man carrying the Masikura or Ottendorfer models, presumably because they're considered feminine, which is unfortunate.

I started carrying a purse out of necessity after a stroke. I pre-fill each bag with the same contents (keys, money, etc), so that I only ever have to remember one object when I leave as my memory has plummeted and I couldn't remember where I'd put anything. But, I wish I'd started carrying one earlier. Purses are awesome.

Regarding which shoulder and such, watch the video at the bottom of my first link. It shows 4 different ways the same purse can be held -- hanging on shoulder, cross-body at your side, cross-body on your back, in hand (with strap removed or put inside). Same bag; always a purse (though without a strap, it'd technically be a clutch, a subset of purse).
posted by dobbs at 6:04 AM on July 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I agree about the pocketbook usage. I don't know if that's a specifically Midwestern or even more specifically a Midwestern-via-Second Great Migration thing, though.
posted by praemunire at 1:23 PM on July 12, 2019

I have heard older Southern African American women refer to a purse as a pocketbook, so I think praemunire is on to something with the Second Great Migration idea. I haven't heard that term from any other demographic group, I think.

On the other hand, Late Victorian dowagers have a monopoly on the term haaaaaandbaaaaaaag.
posted by basalganglia at 2:50 PM on July 12, 2019

My suburban NY family always said pocketbook instead of purse - like a pocketbook is a type of bag, for whatever reason, but I was relentlessly mocked for this in college so I stopped saying it. Now it's really just called a bag, or a handbag.
posted by bleep at 4:10 PM on July 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Messenger bags and the like to me have a front pocket that hangs out under the flap. It may be zippered as well. Inside are little pockets for pens and phone on the back side. A mini-purse on the front side of the bag itself. There's also usually a pocket along the full of the back that could hold papers and such. It's much more quick stuff on the outside of the bag and big space on the inside. Other things tend to be much more along the lines of "everything goes inside".
posted by zengargoyle at 5:33 PM on July 12, 2019

One aspect that people are overlooking is the intended use. Although you can bring purses to work and/or school...they're meant as a general, all-purpose bag. Compare this to such things as laptop bags and briefcases, which have a more specific purpose: carrying around a laptop and/or other work-related stuff.

Although yes, obviously there are certain design elements that tend to make up a laptop bag and/or briefcase as well. For instance, it's super common to carry around laptops in backpacks. However, that doesn't all of a sudden transform the backpack into a laptop bag. It's a backpack that's carrying a laptop.
posted by Delia at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2019

"purse" is what you call a handbag if you are a woman over 60 who was brought up to it. in that case you probably call a couch a sofa or a divan or a davenport, too. you don't mean anything dramatic by the vocab choice. if you are in that demographic but more brisk, you call it a pocketbook.

"purse" is also what you call a woman's handbag, pocketbook, wallet, backpack, briefcase, or suitcase if you are a man of any age who urgently wishes to broadcast his purity, innocence, and confusion regarding any knowledge of the physically feminine: nobody says "purse" and that is why such a man makes a point of saying it. in his mind it might as well be a coffin or uterus or mystic Pandoran amphora. to know that in general, young and middle-aged women haven't regularly said "purse" since we regularly said "girdle," would be to know too much.

a handbag: is any bag not a rolling suitcase, backpack, or enormous duffel/'weekender' big enough to stuff a body in. and you could still call that last one a handbag if you carry it around every day, nobody's going to stop you. a handbag is anything you use as a handbag, which means anything you carry shit around in every day. a gym bag is a handbag if you use it as one.

a shoulder bag: is a bag it is possible to carry over the shoulder. does it stop being a handbag if it has a shoulder strap? no. not in common usage no, and besides, you can still carry it in the hand. does it stop being a shoulder bag if it only has a top handle and no shoulder strap? yes. are messenger bags, tote bags, bucket bags, satchels, etc. etc. all just different types of handbags, some of which are shoulder bags? yes. are cross-body bags just a sub-type of shoulder bags with straps long enough you can choose which shoulder to wear them over? yes.

what is the difference between a handbag and a man's bag with a handle on it? none. what is the difference between a shoulder/cross-body bag and a man's messenger bag with a shoulder strap? none.

what is the generic term for any and all of these containers that people haul around with them, that will never be wrong and will never make anyone correct you or feel superior about your mistake? "bag." "my bag" is what people call their bags.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:15 PM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I use purse to mean that bag with your wallet, phone, keys, and other small useful items which you want to have. I refuse to let it be gendered and have to use different words for my daughter and husband, so it's purse all around. (If I used bag, we'd end up in a discussion over whether people were bringing backpacks or whatnot.) My family has adopted this usage and my spouse's messenger bag usually gets referred to as his purse, even when it's just him we're talking about.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:36 PM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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