It’s been said that you can tell a lot about a woman by her purse and its contents – her personality, how organized or prepared she is, and so forth. Given that a woman’s purse is considered an accessory and thus as personal a matter of taste as her necklace or nail polish, it’s a theory that makes sense.
In practice, however, I’ve discovered that a woman’s choice of purse is more like her choice of car. It might be fancy or expensive, but more often than not it’s a matter of functionality. A purse of the more decorative variety simply doesn’t hold up under the strains of daily life, just as a dune buggy isn’t really the best choice for winter driving. And just as a car comes equipped with standard features, purses tend to have standard contents.
I have drawn these conclusions based on minutes of intensive research, which consisted of cataloging the contents of the purses of three generations of women: mine, Mom’s and Grandma’s. (Grandma passed away a few years ago, but Mom has recently been going through more of Grandma’s belongings, including her purse.) I would’ve included 17-year-old Younger Sister in my data set, but she doesn’t usually carry a purse, preferring instead to keep her cell phone in her pocket and carry a wrist wallet.
My first finding was that the women in my family tend to carry multiple purses simultaneously. In keeping with the car comparison, this would be like adding a roof rack or a trailer to your vehicle to expand your storage capacity.
Mom’s current “purse” is a tote bag containing two small zippered pouches, a medium-sized purse and a wallet. This, she explains, is because sometimes you don’t need everything in your purse; you only need some of it. As such, she has everything carefully separated inside her tote bag according to how and when it might be needed so she can pare down her purse as required.
Mom learned this technique from Grandma, who would have her large main purse (a hefty leather handbag she referred to as her “lethal weapon”) and a smaller auxiliary purse with just the essentials.
Given that Mom has a tendency to misplace her cell phone, she has also started wearing a pouch that clips on to her belt. In addition to her phone, it contains her ID, a little cash and a credit card so that she never has to dig for (or worry about misplacing) her most important items.
I employ the multi-purse method on special occasions, such as weddings where an evening bag is technically more appropriate but a tote bag is required to fit everything I need. Evening bags are such a lie. There’s room for a lipstick, but good luck fitting your car keys and your phone, much less a sweater and a more comfortable pair of shoes.
My second finding as a result of my in-depth purse research is that women carry many of the same things in their purses, even in spite of generational differences. Between the three of us, tissues, ink pens, paper, lip balm or lipstick, cell phones and wallets all came up as common items. As I mentioned earlier, these would be the standard features on your car.
There was some variety among these items, however, in terms of brands and how many of each item was found in the purses. In regards to lip products, for example, Grandma had a lip balm without a label and an Estee Lauder lipstick in Chilly Berry and Mom had Blistex and a ChapStick with SPF. I, too, had a ChapStick with SPF as well as a Tony Moly peach lip balm, purchased solely because the container looks like a peach. For writing utensils, Grandma and I each had one ink pen a piece, while Mom had about half a dozen, including a highlighter.
There were also a few items (the “special features”) that were unique to one particular purse. Grandma had an emery board, a mirrored compact and a small hairbrush, Mom had sunscreen, a little First Aid kit and a small screwdriver, tape measure and folding scissors and I had a business card case and a folding fan (not everywhere you go has air conditioning).
These special features aren’t tremendously exciting or unusual, nor do I think they reveal that much about our habits or personalities. Looking solely at the contents of our purses, someone could correctly determine that Grandma was well coiffed with tastefully done makeup. The fact that Mom and I don’t carry hairbrushes or mirrors, however, doesn’t mean we have messy hair. Mom usually wears hats or puts her hair up, and my hair is naturally wavy so I only comb through it when it’s wet. Also, you don’t really need a mirror to properly apply lip balm.
Likewise, a person could accurately conclude that Mom is well prepared for emergency situations. The absence of those items in Grandma’s purse, however, is not because she was unprepared for emergencies but because she kept them elsewhere in the car (her actual car, not a metaphorical purse-car). I don’t do a lot of long-distance driving or traveling so I don’t really have need of those items.
Contrary to what is sometimes said, a woman’s purse and its contents offer very little insight into the kind of person she is. Though you might be able to make some accurate generalizations, you’ll probably learn more about her personality and habits by looking at her car. Even when you carry multiple purses, you can only fit so many things in your handbag.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published July 7, 2016