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How hoarding handbags helped shape my identity

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Writer Dino Bonacic opens up about his ‘bag lady’ tendencies, and details how his still-growing collection allowed him to explore and accept who he is

I only stole three times in my life. Once, aged four, I swiped a lollipop from my local corner shop. The second time was a couple years later when I nicked half my friend’s Barbie accessories collection of mini-shoes and matching bags. The final time was when I was eight, and happened much closer to home. After eyeing it up for a couple of years, I decided it was my turn to get a hold of my mum’s fanciest shoulder bag – crafted from soft navy Italian leather, its chunky silver hardware was both subtle and statement-making. 

Surprisingly, it took a few months for my mum to figure out where her ‘going out’ bag was hiding. When she found it, though, it was too late. The bag was scratched all over and had lost its structured trapezoid shape after being squeezed into my secret box every day after I paraded it down the imaginary catwalk of my bedroom. I can’t really remember what my punishment for this terrible crime was, but it was indeed strong enough to suppress my love of women’s bags… for another decade or so.

I’ve always had a fascination with having my personal belongings with me. Even before I had a phone, I loved carrying a pencil case, a notebook, stickers, and countless other tchotchkes I didn’t need. These unnecessary objects gave me a sense of power and familiarity wherever I went. After the major Italian leather purse incident, I carried my things in backpacks, messenger bags, envelope bags, and fanny packs. You know, the designs that could pass as ‘men’s’. I modelled this after my own dad, who always wore a cross-body bag made in a neutral-coloured nylon or leather, usually by a luggage brand that notified the audience, ‘Hey, this is a practical piece of luggage, not just a vain accessory.’

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It took one big move to London and a visit to one of those £1 vintage kilo sales to reconvene with my first true love. There she was: a black beaded clutch with a matching strap that went cross-body, stuck in a bin between two moth-eaten knits that smelled of cat pee. ‘It’s black, it goes with everything,’ I thought. ‘The strap is long enough, so maybe it’s unisex,’ my mind raced on as I forced myself to conform to some imaginary gender rules that told me sequined bags and manhood don’t go together. 

These thoughts went on until I realised this bag was only a pound. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I never wear it. Someone calls me a fag. I get beaten up for wearing a sequined purse. Being a closeted gay at the time, buying it felt like much more than just paying a quid for a piece of second-hand tat. In a way, those black sequins were my entry into queerness. Today, I can appreciate that this was just one of those bags you see everywhere at Beyond Retro, but no one ever wants to buy because it looks like something your gran wore to a cousin’s wedding in 2006. But it was mine and it opened the door for a lot more.

In the six years since, I have accumulated 112 purses – yes, I counted them for the first time specifically for this story. Carefully stored in a temperature-controlled cupboard (not really), each one carries a story and makes me feel excited whenever I pull it out. I will never forget getting my first black Telfar shopping bag and the euphoria that ensued, topped only by the experience of opening the UGG x Telfar mini-shearling wonder that arrived a month ago.

Probably the most valuable piece from my collection is a totally outrageous, totally Y2K Gucci limited edition New York Boston bag that I got as a Christmas present from Sophia Neophitou, editor of 10 Magazine and my ex-boss. In case the white monogram print isn’t enough to draw you in, this bag even came with an invite to a 2008 benefit hosted by Madonna and co-chaired by Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Sarah Jessica Parker. Can you even imagine? 

Another key find was a Michael Kors-era Celine Ava bag in beige (slightly stained) suede which I copped via Depop just as Hedi Slimane brought it back for SS21. And who wouldn’t smile upon seeing the iconic Ashish Tesco-Disco carrier bag that my boyfriend commissioned for Valentine’s Day 2020 just because he knew I’d been hunting for it for years? These bags are also time capsules of adventures I had while carrying them – the parties, the dancing, the snogs, the music… All very much in efflux right now. Some are totally impractical and can barely carry a credit card and a few loose chewing gums, like the Coach x Matty Bovan fanny pack. There are few that are officially ‘men’s’ bags because, well, guys have started wearing purses in the meantime. Just please don’t call it a murse.

I absolutely understand how absurd it is for me to discuss the gender identity of a fashion object in 2021. In the six years I’ve been collecting and wearing bags, I’ve had plenty of people asking me, “Oh, is that for guys?” while pointing at a hot pink beaded clutch. “It is now,” I usually reply with a sour smile on my face. There’s no denying that traditional women’s bag silhouettes have been having their own moment on the men’s catwalks recently, though. From Dior’s saddle bag becoming a menswear staple thanks to Kim Jones and all the male influencers with access to Vestiaire Collective, to Harry Styles parading around LA with a Gucci Jackie dangling off his shoulder. 

“I absolutely understand how absurd it is for me to discuss the gender identity of a fashion object in 2021. In the six years I’ve been collecting and wearing bags, I’ve had plenty of people asking me, ‘Oh, is that for guys?’ while pointing at a hot pink beaded clutch. ‘It is now,’ I usually reply with a sour smile on my face” – Dino Bonacic

AW21 collections by Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and Jil Sander all saved the spotlight for that image of a hot guy with a purse. And even though I usually roll my eyes at the wider cultural trend of straight men being applauded for dressing ‘femme’, I still feel a thrill when I spot a straight guy clearly carrying his girlfriend’s bag. There’s something about a lad in a pair of Nike trackies awkwardly holding a black Michael Kors tote which seems highly homoerotic and homophobic all at the same time. 

As Junior LaBeija puts it in the cult 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning: “It is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time. There’s no getting around that!” Their association with femininity dates back to the 1880s, when functionality was first overturned by stylistic elements. A purse signified class and power – the smaller it was, the richer and more important its wearer was. Their materials became outrageously impractical as well: silk, brocade, velvet, beads: the more opulent, the merrier. This is the reason I fell in love with bags, too – they are shiny trunks that don’t just carry your objects, but also assure your sense of belonging. They are personal to a point where the bag and its contents can be a representation of your personality. Just think of the ocean of ‘What’s in my bag’ videos on YouTube that have made you love or hate the celebrity that’s showing you their dirty tissues and very obscure ‘favourite’ book that they definitely haven’t read.

I buy most of my bags on eBay or in vintage and charity shops wherever I go. Much like any other self-professed eBay fashion expert will tell you, nothing compares to the adrenaline of being the only bidder on a mid-00s Miu Miu bowling bag and snagging it for 30 quid. But I’m not (just) a label whore. Some of my favourite pieces are in fact charity shop trumps that I accidentally stumbled upon – the gaudy crochet square that’s clearly someone’s first attempt at DIY and the truly perplexing beaded fruit bag included. I would say the majority of the bags in my wardrobe are vintage, most of them dating back to the 1960s or what I like to consider the golden era of purses. They were at the cusp of becoming practical, but still carried the frivolous sentiments and the ladylike shapes from the 1950s – these silhouettes continue to be revisited by fashion brands today. Bags from this era can also usually accommodate a modern-day iPhone which is also a plus. 

The sole purpose of my collection of bags is to make me happy. Like one of those people on My Strange Addiction or Hoarders Next Door, I sometimes talk to them and tell them how pretty they are. I also always have one hanging next to my desk – currently it’s a golden beaded Laura Ashley floral fantasy. But until I figure out a way to turn the one-bedroom flat I share with my boyfriend into an independent bag gallery for people who share my granny-like taste, I will continue to try and heal the emotional scars caused by 13 years of wearing backpacks. Maybe the beaded Victorian chainmail purse that’s arriving from eBay next week will do the trick?