I have a German friend who uses the word “handbag” rather than “purse.” It’s a difference I immediately noted, because of the different feel of the word. (She speaks English with a British accent, which surely accentuated the difference.)
At any rate, consider: Judging only by the sound of the two words, who is more elegant, a woman carrying a “handbag” or a woman carrying a “purse”?
“Purse” is a brusque single syllable. It opens with the plosive “p” and moves into a slightly growling “rrrrrr,” wrapping up with a hiss. It’s related to the verb “purse”—as in, “purse your lips”—which refers to puckering, contracting, or wrinkling. Not particularly flattering.
“Handbag,” in contrast, has two nice open “a” sounds. The word as a whole begs to be elongated—please, it says, take your time saying me. The “nd” sound helps out with this effect. There’s a certain luxury to it.
I’m not a linguist. I’m just listening.