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Arts & Entertainment

Crossbody bags: Fashion, function and free hands

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Thursday, July 8, 2010

Attorney Heather Heidelbaugh carries a big bag with important documents for law cases, but the Nine West camel-colored purse slung across her body is not big at all.

"Look at me," says the Mt. Lebanon resident as she makes her way through sweltering Downtown for a meeting. "I've got so much stuff to carry for work that I prefer a smaller purse, especially for summer, because it's light and holds everything I need."

The crossbody bag, sporting a long strap and worn across the body, is suddenly everywhere. The bags, which usually hit at the hip, are practical, stylish and highly accessible. The bags are popular, even outselling traditional handbags last year, according to market research firm The NPD Group.

"The business is definitely on fire right now," says Brooke Scott, fashion director of handbags and accessories at Bloomingdale's. "Everybody needs to be hands-free. We're all girls on the go, trying to juggle a lot of different things. This allows you to be a little bit more liberated."

The crossbody has come back into fashion in the past few years amid the growing popularity of the hard-to-put-down smartphone.

"The idea of not having to carry an old-fashioned ladylike handbag in your hand by the handles is really appealing," says Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure. "People want more function in their fashion and not just frivolity. They want fashion to perform a basic service."

That service allows a woman to navigate congested sidewalks or enjoy a summer vacation with two hands at the ready, her most important possessions and gadgets close by her side. Therer are no more worries about dropping a beautiful bag in a rain puddle or having a purse snatched.

"I like to carry my bag across my body because then if someone tries to take it, I can feel it," says Destiny Edmunds from the West End of her Nine West bag. "Plus, it's big enough to hold everything I need."

Everything Hannah Pecyna needs is a small wallet, cell phone, identification card, some money and makeup for a touchup. Her Louis Vuitton bag was a present for her 19th birthday this year.

"I love this bag because it's easy to carry and it's perfect for shopping because your hands are free," says the Cranberry resident.

Sandra Dorsch of Findlay prefers a smaller crossbody bag because it doesn't hurt her back. It also helps to balance the weight across her body.

"It is perfect for traveling to Vegas because it has compartments and I can keep it in front of me so no one can take it," says Dorsch, wearing a Rosetti bag. "I have never liked big bags."

The style is derived from the bags bike messengers wore and the utilitarian fashions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Ellen Goldstein-Lynch, chairwoman of the accessories design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. The bags have popped up sporadically since then, made mostly by low- to moderate-level companies.

Now, though, they are also offered by high-end designers like Ferragamo and Hermes. "It's the first time it's been brought back with a lot of style," Goldstein-Lynch says.

While its north-south rectangular shape is popular among other designers and manufacturers, the crop of today's crossbody bags has grown to include satchels, drawstring bags and hobos. They are sized from large down to mini and are crafted in soft, smooth leather, along with metallic and patent leather dressy enough for a night out. There's also casual canvas.

Some are fashionably dressed up with studs and hardware, while others are more simple and refined, better able to withstand fads. Wells favors the structured, non-embellished versions in neutrals. "They have a very classic look to them because they're so low-key," she says. "This is not the bag you're trying to sell on eBay right away."

The bags can be worn several ways: Some can be carried by the handles or worn on the shoulder, others make the leap from day to evening, or with the strap detached, some can be used as an organizer for essentials to be dropped into a larger bag. They can also be worn hanging low from the shoulder.

Wearing the bag across her body is a plus for Danielle Church, from Carrick, because it gives her a sense of security -- she can see it at all times. She also likes that her Coach brand choice is a quick bag to grab on her way out the door and it keeps her hands free.

Sales of women's crossbody bags rose an estimated 7 percent across the country for the year ending in February, while purchases of traditional handbags rose 1 percent, according to NPD.

"Women want to invest in accessories, not just collect handbags these days," says Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst.

Fashion watchers expect the style to have staying power.

"Without a doubt, they are going to gain popularity," Allure's Wells says. "This is just the beginning of the trend."

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