VIEW; When a Man Is Left Holding the Bag

''I hold it, but I don't like it,'' said Mike Reed, 41, a biologist, who is Ms. Reed's husband of 13 years. ''If you're holding it, you want to be standing by a woman so people don't think it's yours. The fear is that people think you're a sissy and you carry purses all the time.''

Some men won't even go near them. ''I don't want to be standing out there holding a purse,'' said J. D. DeTrempe, 55, a married father of four in Menlo Park, Calif. ''My ego would be shattered,'' he said. ''What if somebody walked by who I knew? I would never live it down.''

A more subtle fear, though, is that holding a woman's purse sends a signal that the man is not in charge.

''It's about so much more'' than holding a purse, said one Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who agreed to discuss his aversion only if he was not named. ''It's not about doing a favor. It's about showing 'this is my boy.' It's about marking territory.''

Mr. DeTrempe agreed. ''A purse is a mark of humiliation,'' he said. ''Effectively you're being dominated. What's next?''

Why do purses hold such emasculating power? Freud wrote, ''The female genitals are symbolically represented by all such objects as share their characteristic of enclosing a hollow space which can take something into itself.'' His list of such objects included boxes, trunks and cases. Were Freud writing today, no doubt this season's pulsing orange python bag by Tom Ford for YSL Rive Gauche would make the list.

Purses didn't always convey such complicated signals. According to Anna Johnson, author of ''Handbags: The Power of the Purse'' (Workman, 2002), the purse originated as a unisex accessory carried by men as well as women. Her research turned up a crusty fifth-century Scythian pouch, one easy to imagine a man dangling casually from his fingertips.

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But men lost their grip on this power some 13 centuries later when couturiers introduced filmy, Empire-waist dresses. Fashionable women lost their pockets -- apparently forever -- and the ''reticule'' or purse took hold as a girly fashion in its own right. ''Now strictly a feminine accessory, bags were lost to men, who were stuck forevermore with their hands in their pockets,'' Ms. Johnson writes.

Dr. Deborah Tannen, the linguistics professor who wrote the 1990's best seller ''You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,'' said a purse is ''such a marker of being female.''

''Femaleness is stigmatizing to men,'' she added. ''It's like when little boys say you touch a girl and you get cooties.''

Of course, purse phobia doesn't apply to all men. Some men say they carry briefcases for the same reasons women carry purses. The bicycle courier bag is a common sight, too. ''I just don't care what people think,'' said Eric Sobalvarro, 37, an information technology executive who is taking time off to be a stay-at-home dad in San Francisco. ''I sling it over my shoulder,'' he said of his wife's purse. ''I am perfectly comfortable with my own sexuality.''

Grant Gieringer, 38, a telecommunications expert in Denver, said he has answered calls for purse assistance from his mother, sisters and daughters, as well as his wife. ''What's the big deal?,'' he asked. ''I'm not going to be wearing the thing if my wife is not with me, but why would I not help? Even if it's pink.''

Still, even men who are game enough to sashay around wearing their mate's purses say they know they are flirting with a taboo. Tung Pham, 30, an internet marketing consultant based in San Francisco, said he'll wear a purse as a joke in an all-female environment, but it's a different story when ''I'm in a sports bar and I'm surrounded by men; you don't want to look like too much of a wimp.''

Yet there is one bag a man can wear over his shoulder -- even a ruffled, plastic, pastel affair -- and earn nods of respect from other men: a diaper bag. Every man interviewed said the diaper bag is in a class by itself, an emblem of pride for guys who are doing what it takes to care for their little ones, which any manly man knows includes hefting an assortment of bottles, diapers, baby wipes, toys, pacifiers and whatever else works to calm his progeny.

The purse has even made that leap for some men.

''I think the first time I was asked, I was like, 'Um, hold your purse? Don't they have hooks in the dressing room for this?' '' said Adam Durfee, a 29-year-old newlywed who is a product manager at a leading Internet search company. Today, Mr. Durfee said he holds his wife's purse, and recently helped her select two new purses, a Louis Vuitton and a Cartier, during their honeymoon in France. ''Now it's just one less thing that she has to think about when she's in the dressing room,'' he said.

''I think there are still places where you get a lot of grief for doing that,'' said Eric Kiebler, 45, a venture capital consultant in Palo Alto, Calif. ''There are some cultures, apparently, where helping a woman with anything in public is a sign of weakness.''

''That isn't our culture,'' he continued. ''Nor is it the culture I want to have here.''

''It's just a purse,'' he said.

A Guy's Guide

THE FOOTBALL -- Clasp the purse one-handed by your side. Recommended for the man who will hold a woman's purse but wants everyone to know it doesn't contain his lipstick.

THE DIRTY DIAPER -- Pinch the purse gingerly between thumb and forefinger. Hold it away from your body for as long as it takes for the owner to return. Grimacing optional.

THE ACCESSORY -- Wear the purse, placing an arm through the strap and resting the strap on your shoulder. Work it!

THE BAD DOG -- Instruct the owner to lay purse at your feet. Do not touch it or acknowledge it in any way.

THE CONTRABAND -- Stuff the purse inside your coat. If you must obviously clutch at your bulging side, explain that you're armed.

THE SILVER GRAIL -- In this case, it is not the way the bag is held, but the bag itself. Any man with a diaper bag is guaranteed good karma in this life and untold delights in the hereafter. LISA STONE

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Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/04/style/view-when-a-man-is-left-holding-the-bag.html

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