Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Other Famous Women Fond of Handbags

It is not surprising that a handbag should figure so prominently in the film chronicling Margaret Thatcher’s legacy—a sprawling tale brought to the big screen by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. This personal carry-all has long been both functional and symbolic. Depending on its style and brand, it can be a statement of status or a pronouncement of folksiness. Hand it off to a hen-pecked husband or a put-upon assistant and it can demean or belittle. A purse can impress and intimidate, bewilder, berate, or amuse. See Mrs. Thatcher and other famous women fond of the handbag.

It is not surprising that a handbag should figure so prominently in the film chronicling Margaret Thatcher’s legacy – a sprawling tale brought to the big screen by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. This personal carry-all has long been both functional and symbolic. Depending on its style and brand, it can be a statement of status or a pronouncement of folksiness. Hand it off to a hen-pecked husband or a put-upon assistant and it can demean or belittle. A purse can impress and intimidate, bewilder, berate, or amuse. See Mrs. Thatcher and other famous women fond of the handbag.

Plus, The Daily Beast's Robin Givhan on the secret language of Margaret Thatcher's handbags.

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Margaret Thatcher

During Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, her handbags came to signify femininity and toughness. Their style was unassuming: slender, structured, solid, and ladylike.

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Thatcher's Asprey

Her pocketbooks came to be viewed as veritable munitions depots constructed of polished black leather. They became a synecdoche for the woman herself: conservative, intimidating, feminine. An Asprey bag, seen here, that belonged to her sold this summer at auction for about $39,000.

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Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II regularly carries a handbag although she clearly does not need to carry keys, cash, or identification. Reports have suggested that she keeps lucky charms, family pictures and a makeup case in her handbag. But more than what’s in it, the mere presence of it both unnerves and fascinates. It’s such a gesture of normalcy by a woman whose entire life has been an anomaly. Perhaps it makes her feel a bit more “real,” more like an average woman who might joke about the forgotten items lurking in its seemingly bottomless pit? The pocketbook is where the Queen keeps her “stuff”–the things she obsessively believes she needs to be prepared for the day, for the unexpected, for life.

Olivier Douliery, Pool / Getty Images

Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama can often be seen with a handbag. A blue Reed Krakoff tote is a favorite. What could a first lady–with Secret Service only a few steps behind–possibly need to keep so close? (A lipstick? First ladies don’t put on lipstick in public.) The handbag is part of being regular–a way of staying real inside the bubble.

Luong Thai Linh, AFP / Getty Images

Hillary Clinton

In an interview this year with Harper’s Bazaar, secretary of state Hillary Clinton — well-known for her ambivalence about fashion — admitted to a weakness for a good handbag. In particular, Clinton was enamored of her fuchsia Salvatore Ferragamo satchel. “How can you be unhappy if you pick up a big pink bag?” she asked.

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Martha Stewart

Where once the Hermes Birkin was merely an expensively crafted bag favored by a tiny klatch of well-to-do women, the 1990s transformed it into the ultimate big game. It retains an insider’s status, in part because its opening price point is approximately $10,000 and because the production of them is so limited. Martha Stewart carried a Birkin into a New York courthouse during her 2004 trial for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and securities fraud. For a woman who was accused of acting as though her fame and money had put her above the law, appearing before a jury with a handbag that can typically only be accessed via celebrity or wealth was a let-them-eat-cake public relations move.

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Judith Miller

Before reporter Judith Miller headed to jail for her refusal to reveal a source, she walked in front of the cameras carrying an aggressively non-descript bag. Women know those bags, purchased because they are large or inexpensive or sturdy. No one likes them. They are too dull to elicit any sort of emotional response. But they are practical. And if there was any message that Miller wanted to deliver, it’s that she was the egoless reporter. She was taking a hit for the team.

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Lil' Kim

About the same time, the rapper Lil’ Kim did a courthouse promenade carrying a $3,200 Louis Vuitton Le Fabuleux bag. She might have been going down for perjury, but she was still fabulous.

Miranda Priestly

No one needs to be physically struck by a bag to know that it can be a powerful weapon. In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s character, an imperious fashion editor, flings her handbag onto the desk of her most junior, most put-upon assistant. The array of designer bags land like crushing blows to the young career girl’s self-esteem. She has been reduced to porter, to Sherpa, to something even less–some inanimate bit of set decoration.

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Anna Wintour

Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, moves through her professional life without a handbag – even as she reigns over an industry that is fueled by their sale. She once explained her dislike for handbags to the Wall Street Journal, noting that “Handbags weigh you down.” She carries a small notebook, a bit of cash and a cell phone. There’s power in her surprising refusal.