Philippa Stockley: Yes, the contents mean a lot, but it's the bag that matters most

Women's independence begins with personal property and ends with something desirable to put it all in. Our writer explains why the handbag is as much a totem of social change as an accessory

Any woman who has ever been mocked for grovelling around in the bottom of an overstuffed sack suspended from her aching shoulder in a vain attempt to find something, can take heart from last week's ruling in a bag-snatch case: that the loss of a woman's handbag is not a trivial matter, and can lead to stress, anxiety and fear. The judge emphasised that most women's bags hold items of importance and value, whose loss could leave them at genuine risk of personal attack or break-in, of theft or misuse of information, or funds.

The majority of Western women carry a bag and, while some are disciplined over its contents, more are not. My own, just emptied out, contains more than 50 items. Necessities range from those that concerned the judge – house-keys, a phone, credit cards, and a purse (other coins gambol in the bag's recesses), plus an Oyster card, pens, spectacles and a comb – to equally vital things including a Swiss Army knife, a jeweller's loupe, a compass, a copy of Fowler's Mechanical Engineer's Pocket Book (1965), a bradawl, iodine, a needle and thread, safety pins, a steel dip pen from Paris, a bottle of ink and a drawing pad. There is also a travelling tin of watercolours and a sable brush, a tiny bottle of water, a map of Venice, and a hard-boiled egg.

There are also completely unnecessary items such as lipstick, perfume, and various other embellishments.

So how did we reach this state, of fashionable women staggering under expensive, lopsided burdens as heavy as a squaddie's backpack, while men cruise effortlessly to and fro, as suave and streamlined as sharks in deep water?

"Man-bags" of various practical designs have been around since the 1970s (including the short-lived "murse" or man-purse), and today an increasing number of young urban men carry important-sounding messenger or organiser bags, made of leather or canvas in practical colours and a boxy, pragmatic shape. There's also the newest arrival, the slim iPad sleeve, popularised by Marc Jacobs. So why is a bulging handbag still a female encumbrance?

The short answer is pockets. Men's clothes have always had them built in. Frustratingly, women's often do not. While this absence could be sorted out in moments by clothing manufacturers, cost comes into play. Short-season fashion items are more cheaply made without pockets, which can distort a figure-hugging line. A male jacket, on the other hand, made to last several seasons (or even decades) and designed to skim rather than clasp the torso, has strong pockets built into its construction.

But the full answer is historical and political. From the 16th century, while men's coats and waistcoats had pockets, by means of which men scattered about their body coins, small clocks, small books, handkerchiefs, keys, snuff boxes and other items, their manservant toiled along behind with anything bulky. With the 19th century arrival of loose trousers rather than tight breeches, men added trouser pockets to their armoury of personal storage space.

By contrast, until the mid-19th century, middle- and upper-class women stayed at or near home, so had no need to carry much on their person. If they went out, servants carried it for them. An 18th-century woman of style had simple fabric pockets hung from a tape tied round her waist and underneath her vast skirts, which were slitted, so that she could reach her pockets. Into these hidden (and, so, salaciously regarded) compartments, she posted items of high personal value such as a small jewelled timepiece, notebook for billets-doux, lorgnette, or key to a writing desk. A maid carried pedestrian items. Should the lady go out, she might hold a muff, which had small pockets nestled in its furry depths. In the 19th century, women sometimes carried a small reticule.

However, since in law a woman literally belonged to a man, and usually had no legal property of her own, it followed that she should have no need for the means to carry a number of personal items – and certainly none concealed from her male owner's gaze.

So the modern woman's lust for handbags, the fetishising of eye-wateringly expensive carrying devices for stuff that could often just as well be transported in a plastic bag, has a political pedigree.

A woman's handbag is a sign of her emancipation and individual identity. The bigger and more noticeable the bag, the stronger the signal it gives of the bearer's personal freedom and individual wealth.

To his credit, it was butterscotch manufacturer Samuel Parkinson of Doncaster who, in 1841, ordered a bespoke "hand-baggage" for his wife, from HJ Cave, a new luggage manufacturer, as her reticule was too flimsy to carry the things she wanted about her when travelling by train. The handbag was born. Cave's luggage and bags long held a royal warrant. The London firm, recently revamped, will launch its first handbag for 80 years, the Tara, on 13 September.

Many expensive labels started out producing leather goods for horse tack or military use. Tanner Krolle, which began as A Krolle in 1856, made high-class leather for the military. Its fans have included Jackie Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales. Its Sportsman holdall may cost £2,800, but "customers are able to request their own … internal configuration".

Other big guns in the bag game include Prada, Fendi, Launer London, Louis Vuitton, Coach, and newcomer Kate Spade. But perhaps the best known of all is Hermès. In 1956, Grace Kelly was photographed on the cover of Life magazine with Prince Rainier on one arm and a Hermès sac à dépèches on the other. Quickly renamed the Kelly, it's one of the most successful large handbags in history, only matched by the Birkin. The big leather Birkin bag was famously born when actress Jane Birkin sat next to the head of Hermès on a flight and all her things tumbled out of her open straw bag (on which the leather Birkin is loosely modelled) from the locker overhead. Until recently this bag, which costs thousands, had an inexplicable six-year waiting list, whereas for a relatively modest £1,020, Launer London can make a Traviata (similar to the Queen's) in just three weeks.

Of course, you could get a large leather bag for under £100 and buy – say – a collectable vintage Morris Minor with the spare change. There's lots of room in that. But despite Mary Poppins's carpet bag satirising the bottomless pit that is, in truth, close to many women's reality, and despite the likelihood that, after Anna Karenina comes out on Friday, there will be a fashion for the small red bag she tosses to safety, a woman's handbag is a powerful symbol of equality and freedom. As Virginia Woolf might have said, it is a bag of one's own.

Philippa Stockley is a clothing historian, novelist and painter