The XXL bag is our truth’ – how fashion made overflowing handbags a styling trick

In this week’s newsletter: Bags are loaded with symbolism, from class to gender. So what does the current penchant for receptacles stuffed full of clobber tell us?

Speaking as someone who just pulled a red pepper out of my bag while searching for my diary, the current acceptance – and even coolness – of an overstuffed bag comes as a relief. The bag that is so full that items spill out, like a doner kebab, has become this season’s styling trick, as the French tuck or popped collar once were.

At Miu Miu the bags were open and overflowing with shoes, most obviously – high heels clamped over the edges. Miuccia Prada explained her thinking in the show notes: it was an “embracing of unique characters” and “the joy of life”. The big bags that were trotted down the Bottega Veneta catwalk came with rolled up newspapers poking out of them. At Balenciaga, bags looked a little emptier but had chains of keys and cards dripping off them like tinsel.

Jane Birkin was pioneer of the vibe. The late actor, who gave her name to the legendary and most lusted after bag of recent history, the Hermès Birkin, used to stuff hers so full that the handles became unusable, leaving her to carry it round like a rugby ball waiting to be touched down. On TikTok there is even a movement teaching others how to Birk-ify your bag. Model Irina Shayk provided some recent inspiration by carrying her dog around in hers.

These gargantuan, rammed receptacles are a welcome change to the recent trend for tiny bags, from those the size of a debit card – practical only for those who can afford to float rather than schlep through their days – to the trend’s inevitably daft endgame: the “Microscopic Handbag” that measured 0.03 inches. They are a styling trick adjacent to the penchant for visibly done-in but nevertheless very fancy handbags.

In the real world, overstuffed bags are not a styling detail but a byproduct of a regular life. Most people’s homes are small and one’s daily needs are big – bags need to be part storage, part fridge and part safety deposit box. So does fashion’s focus on the big bag lend a certain gloss to the everyday?

“I think we are back to embracing reality and moving throughout the world realistically,” says fashion writer Liana Satenstein, who recently explored the topic on her newsletter, when she moved from her “big hulking bag era while working in an office” to carrying a debit card when going freelance. “There is a physical and psychological lightness that comes with a small bag,” she wrote.

When Lauren Friedman, who has written extensively about the feminist history of the handbag, first saw the trend she immediately thought: “‘Oh, so we’re all just carrying more of our literal baggage now?’” In her work she makes the connection between the history of a handbag and that of women’s rights. “The metaphor between purses and female anatomy is well documented; so to me, what this trend of a large carry-all bag says is that societal culture at large, which dictates these trends, wants self-identified women to carry the weight of it all, out in the open, all at once.” She is speaking from the US where, she says, “we really are carrying so much more in so many different ways”, pointing to the abortion rights conversation.

The bag and its relationship to how we carry things is directly about class and gender. “There’s a pretty interesting correlation between how carrying objects translates to how society sees you.” She points to Roman times: “If you didn’t carry anything, it meant you were rich enough to have other people carry your stuff for you.” The through-line to the tiny handbags of recent times is impossible not to notice.

The overstuffed bag recalls the “frazzled Englishwoman” aesthetic that is harrying its way through the zeitgeist, a 00s-inspired trope represented by Bridget Jones at her most disarrayed. That a more realistic version of womanhood is being celebrated is, in one sense, a gain. Friedman appreciates how it romanticises “a female persona that is not this manic pixie dream girl – she’s not the perfect girl, she has flaws, she has a messy handbag and might be disorganised.”