fashion

Why the first female leader of the free world won't carry a handbag.

In the latest season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood has assumed the role of president of the United States, but there’s one accessory that’s very purposefully missing from her outfit.

A handbag.

And as a woman who’s just assumed the leader of the free world, while it makes total sense that she should be able to conduct her White House business without a handbag, it still somehow feels like a big deal.

Speaking about the very calculated wardrobe choice, House of Cards costume designer Kemal Harris explained her decision to The New York Times.

“We obviously didn’t have a female president as a model, but I revisited the male American presidents of the past to look at their daily wear, their travel wear, and then thought about how that might translate to Claire,” she said.

“You never see a male president with a briefcase or a wallet.

“Even though I had a lot of designers reaching out to me to offer their new bags, I thought: ‘Claire is not carrying a bag. She has people for that. She’s president.’”

Watch the spine-tingling trailer for Season 6 of House of Cards below.

Video by MMC

And while the image of Claire in a presidential power suit, court heels, cuff links and no handbag feels like a feminist statement, in the real world, the sentiment of whether ‘to bag, or not to bag,’ hasn’t been as kind to our leading female politicians.

During Julia Gillard’s leadership, a 2010 image of the Prime Minister visiting the Governor-General sans handbag got its own headline, with The Australian using this as a critique to distance her from the ‘every woman’.

“Julia manages to get through life without ready access to the travelling office the rest of us could not live without,” wrote Glenda Korporaal for the publication.

“There is an air of royalty about her that assumes someone else is following along answering the phone, parking the car, taking notes and paying for whatever needs to be paid for.”

Julia Gillard 2010
Julia Gillard announcing her victory after winning the 2010 federal election, sans handbag. Image: Getty.
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To be fair, the handbag observation was one of the more subtle critiques of Gillard, who dared to defy expectations with her de facto relationship and child-free status.

In the pro-handbag camp, Hilary Clinton raised eyebrows in June of 2016, while toting a $4800 (AUD) Ralph Lauren calfskin handbag. The fact that she was arriving at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital for the birth of her second grandchild drew considerably less attention.

Then there's German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose affinity with big handbags has also attracted its own media hype. Last year The Cut published a gallery titled "The Only Thing Angela Merkel Loves More Than Governing Is Rummaging Through Her Enormous Handbag," which featured no less than 20 photos of the Chancellor with various bags.

Angela Merkel handbag
Angela Merkel rummaging through her handbag became an odd fascination point. Image: Getty.

While the majority of these stories feel like the result of slow-news-day fodder, there's also an underlying, gendered critique of these politicians which seems neither warranted or fair.

So, back to Claire Underwood. While in House of Cards, she becomes the first female president of the United States, her power-hungry, murderously ambitious and narcissistic ways aren't exactly totem poles for leadership, female or otherwise.

She does however, rule her presidency with an unwavering, iron fist, that's very conducive to good television.

With or without a handbag.

Have you been watching the new season of House of Cards? What do you think? Tell us in a comment below.

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