In 2006, Jessica Simpson appeared on her hit TV show, Newlyweds, clad in a miniskirt, a thousand-yard stare, and a bag so big it seemed she could fit inside. Between 2004 and 2007, Rachel Zoe styled an army of stick-thin starlets who trolled the streets of L.A. weighed down by impossibly large bags. And in 2008, Marc Jacobs’s ad campaign featured Victoria Beckham—inside a shopping bag. The celebrity handbag was indisputably super-sized. Devi Kroell, the designer of Simpson’s python hobo, explained the bags of the mid-aughties: “Everything was very much excess.”
But then—whether by means of economic necessity or a shift in trends—bags suddenly got small. Two seasons ago, labels such as Prada and Kate Spade offered miniature purses that could hardly fit an iPhone. They were a far cry from the handbags of the 18th century— which were tiny, primitive prototypes known as reticules—but represented a backlash against the age of the oversize tote.
After years of either gigantic or teensy offerings, bags this season are refreshingly normal. Labels such as Proenza Schouler and Celine have experienced recent runaway success with their "regular" size bag—including the ubiquitous P.S.1. Even former heavy-loaders like Zoe and Beckham have begun to modify their tastes for their own collections, both shown in New York last month. When it comes to women’s accessories, things are suddenly down to size.
“It has to do with part of the functionalism and in a way part of the minimalism that’s going on,” said Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT. “If you are getting clothes that are more streamlined, you’re going to choose a bag that mimics or complements that in some way.” Minimalism—a term that’s been excessively evident in the two years since industry veteran Phoebe Philo was appointed to Celine’s top design spot—has become fashion’s reigning style. Perhaps its classic undertones and reliability have caused the trend’s undisputed lasting power. Alex Rawsthorne wrote in The New York Times’s Style Magazine that Philo’s aesthetic was “a breath of fresh air at a time when fashion needed a respite from recession.”
If anything, fashion has reformed the size of bags to reflect a newfound respect for functionality. “It’s very interesting because you also get the pendulum shift between more fantastical and functional fashions—this has to do with the part of functionalism,” Steele explained. “Bags had grown to this enormous monstrosity, wildly unfunctional, akin to tottering around on seven-inch heels.”
Gazing at the spring 2012 collections, which wrapped last week, it’s easy to detect the functionality in many of the bags on the runway. From the envelope-shaped satchels at Celine to the doctor’s bags at Louis Vuitton, these purses serve a purpose—they fit just the right amount of your daily necessities. As Kroell explained, “When you’re a designer, you kind of feel what’s out there and what’s needed. Right now I don’t feel that bags should be oversized or mini either. What’s out there now seems to be just right.”