Handbags for men come fashion full circle

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      To any guys out there who still think that carrying a purse is effeminate: the 20th century just called and wants its fanny pack back. (Return the beer hat while you're at it.) With a growing selection of men's bags available, there is no excuse for overstuffed wallets bulging out of back pockets, front pockets loaded down with keys, or coins, cellphones, and other odd lumps destroying your jacket's silhouette. Although the selection of men's bags is tiny compared to what's available for women, and it's unlikely that we'll see the bulk of men clucking about the season's hottest designer satchels anytime soon, bags for everyday needs have become a style staple and an integral part of layering your look for fall. Flinging a backpack over your suit just doesn't cut it anymore.

      In a sense, things have come full circle. Once upon a time purses were quite butch. Men in ancient and medieval societies carried them out of necessity. The reason was simple: no pockets. Prior to Europe's Industrial Revolution and new fabrics made possible by growing global trade and technologies, pockets were the privilege of a hoity-toity few. People wore wool or leather clothing stitched together by hand. Drawstring purses attached to the waist by leather thongs were used to carry everything from coins to aromatic potpourris. By the 1400s, as luxurious fabrics and other riches began to filter from Asia into Europe, ornamentation of brocade, embroidery, jewels, and precious metals began to appear on both men's and women's purses.

      Men's handbags started to disappear in Europe in the late 17th century, when breeches with built-in pockets gained in fashion. Over the next century, the availability of linen and cotton and the advent of sewing machines made pockets accessible to the general public. An unfortunate trend, large fur muffs, came into vogue in high society, and fops employed this blowsy accessory as a makeshift purse.

      As women's clothing was streamlined, pockets became cumbersome and the reticule, an early precursor to the modern purse, was born. Its contemporary incarnation grew in popularity in the 1920s, coinciding with a rise in women's independence. In the mid-'50s, Coco Chanel introduced the 2.55 handbag (named for its release date: February 1955); the strapped bag set the standard women's purses still follow today.

      Meanwhile, the male-status-symbol briefcase separated the men from the boys, and white collar from blue. That shift started in the early 1800s with the carpetbag. An explosion in railway travel resulted in a demand for cheap luggage, and former saddlers cashed in by constructing bags made out of used carpets. These were the first suitcases. In the 1820s, Godillot of Paris created the earliest version of the briefcase, a carpetbag with a hinged iron frame. (They were called briefcases because attorneys used them to carry their briefs””no, not those briefs.) There are three standard styles: the portfolio, a case without handles; the folio case, which has retractable handles; and the attaché, a boxy case with a hinged frame. Today, soft leather and synthetic carrying cases offer a wide variety of alternatives to the traditional briefcase. There are shoulder bags, messenger bags (diagonal strap across chest), travel bags, brief bags, tote bags (handles but no strap), and handbags with wrist straps. Local stores carry bags for every occasion, so that Vancouver men can carry their stuff in style.

      On the high end, Banana Republic (various locations) has luxurious, soft black leather brief bags ($525) with handles and straps, and outside pockets and flaps for all your doodads; for quick getaways and short-haul business trips, gym-style weekend bags ($575) also feature handles and straps. The retro brown “tumbled-leather”  travel bag ($495)””with handles, shoulder strap, and outside zip and flap pockets””is very chic, as is the rectangular camera bag ($225). Both are made from fine Italian leather and are lined with cotton twill.

      In the mid-range, Roots (various locations) presents the super-soft Tribe Collegiate Bag ($199). Rectangular, with a shoulder strap, zip top, and overhanging flap, this bag will have a shelf life over a few seasons. Its jaunty little brother, the Editor's Travel Bag ($279), features buckled outside pockets, stitching details, and a detachable shoulder strap. Leather for Roots' Tribe accessories comes from an Italian factory that uses a chrome-free tanning process, which is friendlier to the environment.

      Cheaper but definitely cheerful, fun, and funky is the in-house collection of catchalls at Ark Clothing (2549 Main Street). Snazzy Reporter Bags with pop-culture iconography (including photos of Muhammad Ali, and Sid and Nancy); travel bags featuring Kurt Cobain and the Ramones, among others; and “China Girl”  and “Chinese Wallpaper”  Hostess Bags are perfect for the back-to-school crowd. All the aforementioned sell for $45. Ark also carries a great retro gym bag emblazoned with “Canada”  and the maple leaf, also $45, in beige, brown, and red. The store's laptop cases for PCs and Macs ($45 to $69) from Lifepod are pretty groovy, in '60s paisley and '80s pixilated patterns. Complement these with a Lifepod iPod holster ($49), complete with amplifier and speakers, and room for your charger, connector, cables, et cetera, in pink, green, camouflage, wood grain, or white.

      Whatever you choose, remember, style is in the bag.

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