A bag from designer Rachel Feinberg’s collection of Pussy Pouches. Photo: Culprit Creative
The Pussy Pouch. Featured all over the news recently; from Refinery29 to The New York Times, it’s drawn as much fascination and praise as it has stirred up strong reactions from the public.
The intimately feminine purse was conceived on a subway journey in New York two years ago by New York-based fashion designer Rachel Feinberg, founder of cutting-edge fashion label DAMNsel. At the time Feinberg, who is originally from Los Angeles, was a recent graduate of Parsons School of Design.
While reading Marilyn Frye’s book “Politics of Reality: Oppression” on her journey home, Feinberg recounts looking up and seeing the usual scene of women cramped up with their purses in their laps while the men’s limbs were strewn about the seats, taking up all the space they pleased—a practice now referred to as the infamous manspreading.
Frye’s book, published in 1983, is a collection of nine essays that has become a classic in feminist philosophy. In the book, the author asks her readers to “Consider…the discipline of women’s cramped physical postures and attenuated stride,” in stark contrast to men’s freedom to claim ownership of the space around them.
Feinberg recounts, “I looked up from my book to survey the commuters around me. Each woman, myself included, sat with her purse on her lap with legs either crossed or tightly closed, while the majority of men sat with relaxed limbs extended in all directions.”
This became a eureka moment for Feinberg, who started to think about the space women occupy compared to men in public places. It also immediately changed the way she behaved from that moment on: “As I unwound my legs and moved my purse to the vacant seat beside me, I transformed myself from a self-policing inmate of Foucault’s Panopticon to a fashion designer intrigued by the tendencies of the subway’s occupants,” she writes on her website. “Its a behavior we’ve been taught, we’re raised to act this way,” she tells me in an interview.
It was also this moment that sparked a creative idea for her groundbreaking bag line, the Pussy Pouch collection.
The boundary-crossing line of bags ranges from 3D vulvas and studded versions to crystal-covered varieties including the “orgasm” and pleated ones made by supple leather and metallic hardware. Feinberg also designs a range of other vagina-inspired accessories in a variety of textures and tones.
Pop culture icon Beyoncé among the fans of the Pussy Pouch. How did that endorsement come around? “It happened two years ago when I had just designed one bag—the pink pouch without a strap. I wanted to gain attention around it and figured I’d target celebrities who were already part of the discussion, says Feinberg. “I wanted to find someone who knew what they were talking about and could discuss it and not just wear the bag without knowing what it was all about. Beyoncé had just come out with her new album at the time and I thought she would be a perfect representative.”
Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot also happens to wear the bag. “I was at the Art Freeze lecture series and after the Q&A session I went up and gave them a bag each. They liked it and chose to wear it immediately, which is exciting as I consider what they do to be very courageous and critical,” says Feinberg. Other high-profile fans of the bag include Australian transgender model Andreja Pejic and Elliott Sailors, a woman who models male clothing.
The marketing video for Pussy Pouches, FEMMETALIQUE, featuring three naked dancers in silvery body paint was made by Los Angeles-based marketing and advertising agency Culprit Creative, released in collaboration with Refinery29 and shot in the same studio where big names like Wiz Khalifa have shot their videos.
“We wanted to make a video that’s classy and stylish. Her collection is made of incredibly good material and we wanted to match that with this video,” says David Dinetz, director at Culprit Creative. “It’s not overly sexualized, people see art and beauty when they watch it.”
On 21 July, however, Instagram closed down DAMNsel’s account due to it having “violated the terms of the service.” The Instagram shutdown came on the heels of the social photo sharing site’s (since-revoked) ban of #curvy. “When we launched the Culprit Creative video, Instagram closed down my account due to nudity. Fine art is okay, but nude photos are not. So basically they’ve closed it down due to a purse. And it’s not great because it’s crucial for a small brand to have followers on Instagram,” Feinberg says.
After a two week lock-down and following ample media coverage, Instagram—which wasn’t even willing to set up the account in the name of Pussy Pouch to begin with—has now restored access.
Feinberg says that the entire process with the Pussy Pouch purse line has been interesting. “A typical fashion designer wouldn’t encounter these types of problems. Even for some websites to feature images of my bags is a problem because photos can’t be nude to be featured on certain fashion brand websites,” she explains.
Apart from the purely practical obstacles to be overcome, some people have been offended by the stylized designs. “My dad encouraged me to keep a diary or a hidden camera with me when I started getting reactions to the Pussy Pouch, because they’ve been so outrageous. But interestingly, the public has been more accepting than the fashion community. The fashion world hasn’t been very accepting,” Feinberg says.
“[Reactions] have varied from totally excited to people even starting talking about my own vagina. A friend of mine in Canada wore her Pussy Pouch to a bar, and people came up to her and criticized her for wearing it in public, saying that [the place] was a family establishment. This is exactly the problem; vaginas shouldn’t be shameful, they are pretty crucial to starting a family after all,” she says.
And these fiercely indignant reactions are to be expected, according to American feminist writer and activist Erin McKelle. “When you bring taboo things like depicting female genitalia out in the open, you bring the stigma up, and when that’s stirred, people get uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s not yet socially acceptable to interrupt that stigma and people tend to get upset by it.”
In other words, the Pussy bag disrupts the way our culture works right now. “It’s obviously struck a chord in people in some way,” says McKelle. According to her, it is all down to a sexual double standard where men are more able to express openly their sexuality while women are still shamed for being sexual.
Along those same lines, Feinberg’s fashion label DAMNsel got its name from the phrase “damsel in distress,” the often-portrayed literary archetype of a ladylike woman who needs to be rescued by a male hero.
Right now, Feinberg is working on her Fall/Winter 2016 collection for Peopleswear, which will launch during February 2016 New York Fashion Week. Part of the collection has a uniform concept, and similarly to Feinberg’s “pussy pouch,” will rally against societal and gender norms. Feinberg’s February launch debut is set to “inspire its audience to push their fashion boundaries and create change.”
The socially conscious designer is part of a movement that recognizes the positive impact fashion can have in subverting social norms. The themes in Feinberg’s work are centered around gender, society and social norms, and her norm-challenging work could be described as “fashion for social change.”
In addition to giving people the opportunity to display their sociopolitical views, the sleek purses are also intended to rid women of the bulky bags they hide behind. Because hiding behind a bag on public transport is also a form of self-defense. In this way, the clutch highlights subconscious behaviors and urges both the owner and the observer to think.
“Most women put their purse in their lap. While people would give many reasons for this that are also valid, such as protecting their stuff and making space for others, it’s basically about protecting the vagina,” says Feinberg. That’s why the aim to destigmatize female genitalia is an important one, according to the designer. “Particularly in the U.S., where the political scene includes men discussing women’s reproductive rights on a daily basis.”
Many people that criticize the Pussy Pouch purses in online forums, questioning how the bags could actually help to stop manspreading. Feinberg points to how that way of thinking misses the point. “My goal isn’t to combat manspreading. My aim is to question social norms through fashion. If women want to sit a certain way on the tube, they can still do it. But the issue should be addressed,” she says.