Women carry different versions of their femininity in their handbags. The Handbag Project explores the contents of three women’s handbags, examining the way that their items reflect their version of femininity. Handbags are predominantly marketed for and used by women. They have a rich history of being fashionable and functional utensils, yet there is little gender theory examining the way in which they carry gender identity. More significantly, their contents are almost always invisible to the outside world. By unpacking the ‘baggage’ of women’s gender identity, the project aims to provide insight into what Bowen and Harstang (1994) call a “tangible symbol of femininity.”

The Handbag Project will unpack three women’s handbags, allowing users to explore the items carried within, along with audio interviews of the bag’s owners that provide insight into their understanding of their gender identity. The documentary will also include social media integration to encourage women to share and discuss their own experiences through the emblem of the handbag, using the hashtag #thehandbagproject.



In a period where ‘feminism’ has become a cheap buzzword, the media is failing to engage women in critical thought surrounding gender identity, expression and performativity. Simone de Beauvoir claimed that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” yet this very disruption to gender essentialism is missing from mainstream pop-feminist discourse (Butler 2004). Understandably, it is challenging to present gender theory in a digestible and comprehensive manner for a wide demographic. However, this is the objective of The Handbag Project.

Judith Butler (2004) proposed that identity is established through a stylised repetition of acts, which becomes a gender ‘performance’. For this reason, one could imagine that the objects inside a woman’s handbag could be the ‘props’ of her performance—the make up, the tissues, the wallet, the tampons. Each of these items plays a role in a woman’s ability to perform her gender in the public domain (Butler 2004). By examining the items a woman chooses to carry with her, this documentary seeks to understand “woman” as a structure and not merely a label (Bowen & Harstang 1994).

Nonetheless, it is still to be expected that each woman’s handbag will carry a unique version of femininity. “Surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions; is clearly not a fully individual matter” (Butler 2004, p. 906). Perceptions of motherhood, body image, and a responsibility in the domestic sphere are inscribed upon the inventories of women’s handbags. Even if items may vary, they will still likely intersect across these constructions of gender (Bowen & Harstang 1994).

For instance, make-up, hand mirrors or combs hint at many women’s need to maintain their physical appearance in the public domain, while ‘emergency’ items such as Band-Aids, hand sanitiser or sanitary napkins reflect a need to assume responsibility as care-givers (Bowen & Harstang 1994). Interestingly, mother’s bags were full of toys, baby food and nappies, while every woman is likely to carry ‘items of the state’, such as driver’s licenses or bank cards, reinforcing a societal identity (Bowen & Harstang 1994). Womanhood is stamped across these items. Much of Butler’s (2004) gender theory relies on the concept that the personal is political, meaning that a woman’s conception of femininity is informed by shared social structures. For this reason, there will be significant overlap in the items women carry in their bags.

Although countless listicle-articles exist telling women what they “should” carry in their handbags, The Handbag Project poses the question why do they carry those items in their handbags? It gets women to think critically about an item they carry with them almost every day.



The Handbag Project relays women’s narratives and experiences through the literal unpacking of their handbag. The overarching objective of the online documentary is to start a critical conversation around gender theory that is accessible for all women, regardless of their familiarity with concepts like gender performativity and gender identity. As the documentary draws upon the affordances of participatory platforms, it will provide the opportunity for women in the audience to contribute through social media (O’Flynn 2012).

As the documentary aims to stirs up discourse around the purpose of the handbag as a symbol of femininity, the main target audience is women—who carry handbags—ranging across a broad demographic.



As the documentary will be an immersive, mouse-driven experience, it will be designed for a personal computer. The i-doc utilises widescreen graphics, audio interviews and soundscapes, and will largely be navigated through mouse-directed, clickable content. Therefore, it will be suited to a standalone platform operated on a desktop or laptop computer, where the user can sit down and enjoy exploring the content online. The interactive interface follows a semi-linear, audio-interview structure. The user will move from handbag to handbag, exploring what is within and listening to the owner respond to questions through an audio interview.


The Handbag Project poses the question, how do the items in women’s handbags present differing version of feminine gender identity? Through data visualisation, the photographs of each handbag and its contents will visually represent patterns and repetition, while still taking the audience into an experiential and affective space (Beh & Lombardo 2014).

The Handbag Project’s aesthetic will consist of a minimalist and monochromatic design, comprising of crisp, neat visuals that mimic a curated space. As the women’s items will be displays in an online archive, the aesthetic will be similar to a museum, capitalising on negative space and a greyscale colour palette. The interface will be simple in its clarity of visual langue and flow (Fadeyev 2012).

This navigation takes advantage of the experimental documentary format, where the storyline requires the agency and interactivity of the audience (O’Flynn 2012).


One inspiration for this aesthetic is Kaitlin Jones’ interactive documentary Soldier Brother. In Jones’ project, the negative space creates breathing room around the objects, giving each item definition. The use of shadow to create a three-dimensional feel adds a sense of tactility. When hovered over, a glitch effect and an enhanced colouring lets each item ‘pop’ off the screen, hinting that it is clickable. The Handbag Project will adopt some of these principles into its design interface.

However, unlike Jones’ layout, the composition of the items will be structured, not scattered. The objects will be presented in a grid-like pattern, drawing upon the techniques of knolling. Categorising items systematically through this technique visualises data in a comprehensible manner, as is the case for New York designer Lauren Manning’s project Food Consumed.



By applying this grid-layout—with the negative space acting as borders between the objects—the overall effect will be neat and organised, allowing for visual clarity and coherence (Fadeyev 2012).





The documentary will begin with a landing page that introduces The Handbag Project and the concept of ‘unpacking’ gender theory. As the site will operate largely through audio-interviews and self-exploratory clicking, there will be a short audio introduction on the landing page to briefly explain the concept.


From here, the user reaches the homepage. From this point forward, all the alternative strands of the project will lead back to the homepage. It will consist of the images of three handbags, which the user can click on to explore. It will also contain a navigation bar on the bottom of the page, with links to the about page, participant page, contribute page and credits. The white sans-serif text on the black banner will be nonintrusive, drawing little attention away from the dominant graphics.

home-pageThe three bags will lead to three separate pages, each showcasing the bag’s contents. There is a loose linear structure to each bag, and the positioning within the composition will encourage the user to intuitively work from left to right. However, it does not matter which order the bags are explored, as the linear narrative is contained within each strand. The audience could choose to explore one bag or all three and still come away with a complete and contained user experience.

As the user hovers over the items of the bag, certain objects will present as clickable, inviting the user to listen to short audio interviews given by the bag’s owner. These interviews will answer questions that ‘unpack’ the reasons why women carry certain items with them, as well as the versions of femininity they carry in their bags.


Potentially, a list of the items will be included on the screen detailing what the items are, in the same way that items are categorically identified in museum exhibitions. This is to keep up the visual metaphor of the museum that will reinforce a familiarity and consistency for the user (Fadeyev 2012).

Overall, the navigation and structure of the project will be straightforward and easy to follow.



The Handbag Project will take advantage of digital media affordances such as interactive participation by integrating platforms for social media. A dedicated Facebook and Twitter account will be linked to the project in order to provide forums where the audience can connect, discuss and contribute to the project. Through the hashtag #thehandbagproject women can share their own handbag’s contents and continue to add to the project, ensuring its growth and longevity.



The Handbag Project takes a large, complex idea and presents it through a simplified and contained scope. For this reason, the project is highly feasible for a small group of university students working under a time limit.

The original content will consist of the photographs of the three women, their handbags and the items contained within, as well as the audio interviews recorded. The interview process will only take about twenty minutes per woman, making it possible to conduct the production in just over an hour.

Technically, the project is forthright and easily achievable. In the production stage, it will require a camera to take photographs of the items as well as a microphone and sound equipment to record the audio interviews. The photographs can take place in a studio, such as Bon Marche, or even in an empty room with a white canvas sheet laid down on the floor.

In the post-production stage, the audio will be mixed in a sound design software such as Pro Tools or Audacity. It will require basic editing, cutting the material into short audio clips. The photographs will also be enhanced and colour-graded in Adobe Photoshop CC.

The online documentary itself will be assembled in the HTML 5 authoring tool Tumult Hype 3. By employing a responsive layout and compiling the material through multiple threads, the making of the website should be straightforward. Overall, the project is practical and realistic within the time constraints of the brief.


  • Canon camera
  • Audio Recorder with Microphone


  • Audacity
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Hype 2.5



  • Do you feel comfortable leaving the house without your handbag? Why/why not?
  • Why did you choose that style of bag?
  • Do you feel like your handbag is too heavy? If so, why not eliminate items from it?
  • Why do you think women carry handbags and men don’t?
  • Would you be comfortable with someone going through your handbag?
  • Why do you carry make up in your bag?
  • What are the ‘emergency just in case’ items that you carry in your handbag?
  • What is the most important thing in your bag?
  • Have any of these items every gotten you out of a sticky situation?
  • Are you embarrassed of anything in your handbag?



So far, I have found one subject to be interviewed. She is a twenty-three year old pharmacy student that lugs around a very heavy handbag, and she has already agreed to participate in the project.

I would prefer to find two other women with a big age difference—ideally someone between 30-40 years and someone between 50-70 years. This will provide a broader range of participants for the project. However, many women whom I have mentioned the project to were quite intrigued and enthusiastic to share the contents of their bags for the documentary. Finding two more subjects within the right age brackets should not be challenging.


Beh, E.J. & Lombardo, R. 2014, Correspondence analysis : theory, practice and new strategies, Wiley, United Kingdom.

Bowen, T. & Harstang, P. 1994, ‘The discourse of handbags.’, Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. .5-9.

Butler, J. 2004, ‘Performative acts and gender constitution ‘, Literary theory : an anthology, Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub, pp. 900 – 11.

Fadeyev, D. 2012, ‘User interface design in modern web applications’, in V Friedman & S. Lennartz (eds), The Smashing Book #1, Smashing Media GmbH.

O’Flynn, S. 2012, ‘Documentary’s metamorphic form: Webdoc, interactive, transmedia, participatory and beyond’, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 141 -57

Piper, A. 2016. Things Organised Neatly. [Image] Pinterest, viewed 12 September 2016 <;

Trump, I. 2016. Soho Tote. [image] Ivanka Trump, viewed 14 September 2016, < >

Welter, F. (Producer) & Jones, K. (Director) 2011, ‘Soldier Brother’, [Online Documentary] Canada.