There are few material items more personal or more indispensable to a woman than her handbag. Leaving home without mine feels like one of those anxiety dreams where I'm trying to go about my business except I'm nude or partially blind or something.

Yet despite their everyday nature, handbags are both a source of fascination (for women) and abject horror (for men). How many times have you asked your partner to retrieve something from inside your bag, only to have him immediately pass you the entire thing? Best heed this warning, published in 1945 by the New York Times:

"A young man I knew - the sensitive type - once told me that he was about to propose to a girl, when, accidentally, he had a glance into her handbag. It shocked him to such a degree that he spontaneously cancelled his proposal.

"His whole image of the pretty girl had changed after he had seen the untidiness of her powder-dusted, lipstick-spotted handbag. Worst of all, a fruit drop had stuck to the lining."



Conversely, countless magazine spreads divulge the contents of celebrities' handbags for female readers to gawp at. We're fascinated, apparently - even if those contents do always consist of five cult beauty products, the world's tiniest camera and some twee boutique lozenges.

(My handbag: one single yellow post-it note; two loose business cards; my wallet; an eyeliner pen; lipstick; two sticks of chewing gum; a week-old concert ticket; some of those Spend-$10,000-And-We'll-Give-You-A-Wine-Glass supermarket stickers; a packet of tissues; my keys; an umbrella; sunglasses; lip balm; painkillers; and a receipt for mozzarella and wine. NB: Tomorrow could see the exciting addition of today's lunch receipts.)

Still, that we're interested in the contents of other women's handbags at all is a lovely example of ladies' curiosity about other ladies. (Not that kind of curiosity.) We like to know how other women live: which products they use, what they hold dear, what we can glean from their existence via tiny, seemingly superficial possessions. The modern-day female security blanket contains a million stories in its black hole depths. And a thousand weapons to get through life.

As was recognised last week in the trial of a 34-year-old man who had a thing for snatching women's handbags. When his barrister suggested that having a handbag stolen was a mere crime of "inconvenience", Judge Zoe Smith disagreed - stating that victims of handbag theft were left anxious, stressed and scared. The crime should never be trivialised, she said, because handbags are vital when it comes to women's sense of security: "It is not just inconvenience, it causes fear as well .... It's a terrible thing to do, and girls are left stranded on their own."

The Queen Mother would have agreed. Of (the late) Princess Diana and her grandson, Charles - just prior to their separation, incidentally - she said: "Charles doesn't quite understand about Diana and her handbags. He thinks it is just what the newspapers call fashion, and like all men feels more than two is an extravagance. But a handbag is so much more to a woman, isn't it? It's an extension of herself."

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What's in your handbag? Have you ever had your handbag stolen?