In what must appear to be the strangest manoeuvre in the age-old battle of the sexes, men, after centuries of contemplating the feminine cleavage with a mixture of lust, envy, and aesthetic detachment, have finally decided enough is enough, and gotten themselves their own cleavage — a ‘male cleavage’ — best showcased through the he-vage T-shirt. And carrying their raid of the female wardrobe further, they’ve now made the purse their own, giving it a pseudo-masculine sheen by calling it a ‘murse’.
Age of the He-vage
According to Urban Dictionary, a reliable tracker of the latest linguistic fads, ‘he-vage’ is popular speak for male cleavage. It denotes the fat or muscle seen in the chest area of males when the shirt buttons are left unbuttoned to an extreme. And the murse is a neologism that refers to the male purse or handbag.
Some people believe that the he-vage was pioneered by those dancing uncles at marriage parties. The ones who, a few pegs down, lost their shirt buttons. People were too drunk to notice and even if they did, they thought of it as remnants of a bygone era — the John Travoltas and Vinod Khannas of the ’70s and ’80s also sported shirts with buttons undone to their bellies.
Despite the differences in the he-vage of today and the shirts of the 1970s, many believe that the he-vage owes much to those old times. But the differences come out in the open, so to speak, when you compare Tony Montana (Al Pacino in the iconic Scarface) and Yash Birla.
When Montana gunned down half a dozen people, a Cuban in one hand and a machine gun in another, he did it aided by a half-opened shirt and a hairy chest. Birla is seen in social dos carrying a pink drink in one hand, and wearing a he-vage tee that frames a chest as hairless as a plucked chicken. Fashion designer Swapnil Shinde points out that the ’70s and early ’80s look is back. “Back then, men’s fashion was all about tight-fitting clothes and a somewhat androgynous look with rings, bracelets and necklaces. It’s not surprising that the male cleavage has also returned,” says Shinde. But Shinde isn’t happy. He evidently does not enjoy admiring men’s exposed chest — be it hairy or clean-shaven — and terms it ‘bad fashion’. Showing more chest, he says, looks crass.
But then, Jude Law, ranked by GQ magazine as one of the best-dressed men in the UK, was recently spotted wearing a he-vage tee. In fact, his jacket’s neckline was higher than that of his tee. Back home, every Bollywood leading man sports a he-vage. Why? Because it accentuates his pectorals better. Their fans, of course, follow them. Troy Costa, a leading fashion designer, says, “People emulate actors blindly and it becomes fashionable. But this is not necessarily good fashion.”
Is it then a step towards gender parity? “If that is so, then it is very demeaning, that of all the great things men can learn from women, they are choosing to emulate revealing one’s cleavage,” says another famous designer, not wanting to be identified as having spoken out against the fashion sense of Bollywood stars.
For better or murse
“It has many compartments.” “It is a multi-purpose bag.” “Wallets hurt my bottom.” Men keep making such excuses. But why can’t they say it? After all, it does have a strap. And it is worn across the shoulders. But they will definitely not use the ‘p’ word. What ‘p’ you ask? The ‘purse’, of course. So it now has a new term for itself: the murse.
The famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld spent an entire show denying it was a ‘man purse’. When confronted, he called it “a European”, and had this to say: “The male kangaroo doesn’t have a pouch; only the female has it. So the male has pouch envy. Why should she have this huge pouch, and I have nothing? I have things to carry, too. At least give me a pocket.” Even Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc in Friends) was denied a big break in a TV show simply because he refused to part with his ‘murse’.
But now this stigma is receding, as an array of well-known celebrities are flaunting the murse. Some even the clutch. (No silly, not like your car’s clutch. This one is the colourful bag women carry, which leaves men wondering what such a tiny thing can contain). R&B singer Seal, actors Hugh Jackman, Shahid Kapoor, John Abraham, and a bevy of other celebrities carry a murse. Terrence Howard carried a $34,000 alligator clutch during the Academy Awards in 2006. When he is not blasting people off with his propeller beams, Robert ‘Iron Man’ Downey Jr too carries a man bag.
Of course, there are nitpickers who question the masculinity of the murse. You just need to tell those ‘men’ that they can carry everything they ever wanted to: a hammer, semi-automatic, beer, porn, and keys to your four-wheel drive SUV. All of this in a single murse.
Most men, however, seem to have gracefully accepted the murse. Just like how pants became practical for the working woman, so have the man bags. Costa says, “The murse is quite useful — it can fit in your credit cards, cellphone, iPod, and wallet, among other things, all of which can’t be stuffed into your pockets. And with the jeans getting skinnier, the pocket space too has diminished.”
Also, unless one wants to look like his granddad, no one really carries a briefcase. Many also don’t want to carry to work a bag that resembles a backpack. The logic being that a backpack is for kids or long-distance travel. So therein comes the demand for the murse, says Costa.
One, however, has to pick up the right kind of murse. Shinde provides a few tips. “The murse has to be masculine-looking. So you either go for leather or canvas. And never go for bright, shiny colours. Get a dark-coloured bag instead, with large buckles.”
That means no bright reds and emerald blues.
Also, Costa points out, a murse should have long straps. “Short-strapped ones, which you might hang over a single shoulder, will look more like a lady’s handbag. Also, rectangular bags work better than squares. And certainly don’t opt for a round bag.”
Still not convinced about the murse? Consider this. Author Neil Strauss revealed in his book The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists how he used the murse to pick up women. He devotes an entire chapter to the man bag as a tool of seduction. He writes, “With so many magic tricks, gimmicks, and other tools of the trade necessary to use in the field, it was impossible to fit everything into just four pant pockets. So nearly every PUA [pick-up artist] in the game had a prop bag.” (Tools included gum, notebook, photos, condoms, Frisbee, etc. Often items were used to start conversations, or feel confident. For instance, the condom was more to feel assured that one is ready and the Frisbee to start a conversation).
So what if Strauss calls it a prop bag. It is still a murse and it still helped him bag ‘babes’.