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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
What's in that handbag?
As an exhibition opens on handbags past, present and future, BBC News Online's Megan Lane peers into the bags of shoppers in London's West End.

The inner recesses of a woman's handbag is typically a mystery to everyone but herself.

So it's a rare treat to be given carte blanche to march up to complete strangers and demand to see exactly what they lug about each day.

Queen Mum in 1950s
Let's take a peek, ma'am
My excuse? Selfridges is staging an exhibition charting the contents of women's handbags through the decades, so we wanted to see what the woman of 2001 carries around.

The 1950s woman packed ration books, gloves and Players cigarettes, while her '80s counterpart wouldn't think of leaving home without a Filofax and Ray-Bans.

Today, mobile phones and plastic fantastic have become all but indispensable. But some things remain the same - a train or bus pass, keys, and a few vital cosmetics, to be precise.

Okay, open up

What of those out and about in South Molton Street on a sunny summer's day - what's inside those tightly zipped and closely guarded bags that sprout from shoulder blades and dangle from wrists?

Natalie, left, and Vicky
Natalie, left, and Vicky; and inside their bags
Essex sisters Natalie and Vicky are only too willing to oblige.

Both manage to fit purses, mobiles, make-up and keys into their pocket-sized bags.

"She's got sweets. I've got perfume - I love it - and spare socks," says Vicky.

Catherine and Alex
Cath and Alex Hall: Shopping tag team
Cath Hall, of Epping, manages to fit a surprising amount into her modestly proportioned shoulder bag.

"I've got keys, a letter I received today and read on the train, purse, comb, lipstick, handkerchief, a diary with all my phone numbers, headache tablets, library card, stamps...

"I can't do without my handbag - except on country walks."

Her daughter Alex, of Hackney in east London, squeezes in a jacket, make-up bag, keys, and a yet-to-be-read Sunday newspaper supplement.

"I normally have more than this as I carry a rucksack when I'm at work," she says.

Lisa won't leave home without her hairbrush
Lisa and Alison, of Bedford, are in London to shop - for handbags.

In Lisa's carrier bag is a new Louis Vuitton bag - "because I wanted something really special" - while her serviceable denim satchel holds essentials such as a phone, hairbrush and a purse crippled by a designer handbag-shaped hole.

Alison totes a well-worn leather rucksack containing her black make-up bag, black sunglasses case, black purse...

Alison and inside her rucksack: "Everything's black!"
"We've brought our old handbags today in case anyone steals them," she says.

While Alison remembers her mother braving the day with little more than a purse, Lisa's mum packs everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

"Her bag is so heavy she leans to one side when she walks. I've unearthed months-old receipts, squashed fruit and tatty tissues in there."

After all, as Alison points out, you're not a proper grown-up until you carry tissues at all times.

Luke Stephens
Luke Stephens and his heart-shaped bag
While London make-up artist Luke Stephens' rucksack isn't strictly a handbag, who could resist peering into his heart-shaped bag bristling with red rubber spikes?

"I can't fit a lot into it - just my lunch and a phone.

"Everyone is really positive about it - except my mum, who hates it and refuses to hold it for me when I'm trying on clothes."

Sophie and Kim
Sophie, left, and Kim; and inside Kim's bag
Sophie and Kim, both 15, are in London on holiday from Hong Kong and Dorset respectively.

They carry all the aforementioned paraphernalia, plus cameras and cigarettes. (They must be carrying them for a friend.)

"It's all essential," Kim says, "but it would be nice to cut down on stuff."

Julie considers a travel card essential
What about Julie, of south London?

"I've got pretty much my life in here - too much!" she says, reeling off a list that includes make-up, travel card and not just one, but two pairs of glasses - shades and spectacles.

All in all, a fascinating exercise. Yet it's strange how no-one owns up to carrying crumbs or curry-flavoured condoms...

The Vaseline Life In A Bag Exhibition runs from 21 August to 12 September at Selfridges, Oxford Street, London.

Click here to add your comments

Some of your comments so far:

My handbag [containing no less than 60 items] weighs at least as much as a couple of bricks, has six different compartments, and it BULGES. Actually, having just emptied it out in order to write this, I think I might have a clean-out.
Zoe, Scotland

I once persuaded my best friend to leave her handbag at the hotel. Wearing jeans, she had room for cash and lipstick - with no noticeable side effects.
Ian, UK

Handspring Visor ('cause I'm a nerd), phone, purse, hairbrush ('cause I'm always a mess), lipstick, a book, Bach Rescue Remedy, lots of pens and a scary undergrowth of old hankies, receipts and heavens knows what.
Gillian, UK

Come on! Someone has got to admit to Tampax!
Joyce, UK

Gosh - surprised I can walk upright

Wendie Teppett
One purse, one Filofax, Santana CD, Evian atomizer, foot spray, Chanel No. 5, house keys with seven key rings, vaseline, cheque book, empty cheque book, assorted papers, large comb, two pencils, pantie liner, three small matchbooks, two Air France towelettes, painkillers, compact powder, lip and eye pencil, make-up brush, all day mascara, lipstick and sealer, odd receipts, two loose 1p coins, travel card, two lighters, ciggies, anaesthetic antibiotic cream, glasses (when I'm not wearing them), and mobile phone. Gosh - surprised I can walk upright.
Wendie Teppett, England

I don't have use for a handbag, because my clothes contain devices known as "pockets" - small pieces of fabric stitched to create holders for wallets, phones and loose change.
Matt, UK

But Matt, designers seem to feel pockets are optional extras in women's clothes.
Jayne, UK

Men sneer at the humble handbag, and then want to hand over their wallets, keys, mobiles, diaries for carriage therein so as not to "spoil the line" of their suits.

I used to think a bloke was a big girl's blouse if he carried a bag. Then my mum pointed out that I regularly used a Sainsbury's carrier bag containing spectacles, keys, cheque book, pen, calculator, comb...

Handbag? I only carry one if I don't have pockets. I need my phone, keys, tiny purse and swipecard on work days. I can't bear carrying extra junk around all the time.
LNR, Cambridge, UK

I counted 45 old movie stubs, going all the way back to Speed

Glynis Sharpe
No handbag, but a pocket count shows: house keys, small pack of tissues, wallet, comb, garage door opener.
David Coe, Netherlands (ex-pat)

I'm a guy and have the following essentials in my satchel: London A-Z, chequebook, nightclub passes, newspaper, minidisc player and spare disk, ventolin, keys, chewing gum, lollipop, panadol, condom, contact lens container and solution, eyedrops, blistex, AA batteries, pens, umbrella, sunnies, wallet, phone, bills due, book, travel card, work ID, and palm pilot.
Adam Cairns, UK

I counted 45 old movie stubs, going all the way back to Speed (1995) and Titanic. It adds up to roughly $400 in movies. Gosh, I'll keep them in an album.
Glynis Sharpe, Canada

Aren't there any other mums out there? I always have a permalayer of Polly Pockets underneath the grown-up stuff, and of course wipes for sticky hands and bums.
Dizzy, UK

Most important is a book for when you are stuck on the tube, bus or train. Because in London you will be.
Celia, UK

I keep about 20 pens, torch, compass in case I get lost, sanitary products, mobile, purse, old bills, lipstick, comb... I find the compass the most useful item of the lot.
Claire, Somerset, UK

People might call me strange, but I almost always carry an adjustable spanner.
Anne Harrison, England

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