Books April 2007

Carried Away

When it comes to high-end handbags, you are what you tote.

According to The New York Times, the 2006–2007 season had not one but three must-have handbags: a Fendi distinguished by two nonfunctional outsized buckles shaped like B’s and thus known as the B Bag; a tote from the house of Goyard made of resin-coated, chevron-patterned linen and cotton frequently decorated with racing stripes and the owner’s monogram; and a black vinyl Chanel sack called the Coco Cabas, an item that more than one observer has likened to a trash bag.

There’s no telling how long the trio will be on top—an It bag, like an It girl, can’t, by its very nature, remain an It indefinitely. But if the actual satchel changes every couple of seasons, the motivation for owning one remains constant, a state of affairs that Winifred Gallagher tries mightily to explain in her jaunty, slender new book, It’s In the Bag. If anyone can appreciate what Gallagher, whose previous subjects have included heredity and spirituality, is up against, it’s me. As a fashion writer (and, let’s face it, compulsive shopper), I’ve spent the last couple of decades looking at extravagantly priced handbags, trying to uncover their secrets: Why are women dragging veritable suitcases to work when their male counterparts make do with a billfold and a BlackBerry? Why does a frivolous bag like the coquettish Fendi Baguette, shaped as the name would indicate, cause a sensation while the Chanel 2005 (introduced in 1998), which looked like a high-tech pillow and prided itself on its ergonomic correctness, lay a tremendous egg? The answers, it turns out, lie far beyond considerations of practicality or even objective aesthetic appeal. (Sometimes a jolie laide bag will take off while a lovely purse languishes.) This much can be said with certainty: Handbags have nosed their way into a place once occupied almost exclusively by diamonds and fancy furs, functioning as badges of honor, announcements that you’ve arrived at a particular economic or social level, or at the very least, emblems of hopefulness, yearning, and optimism—I have the same bag as a movie star! I am someone to be reckoned with!—that can be brandished for all the world to see.

Forty years ago—even 30—there was no such thing as a “hot” bag. You had something square and black, or brown and squashy, that you carried in the daytime; something smaller and shinier for evening; and maybe something made of velvet or straw if you were a hippie. Now an impressively large number of women, in addition to worrying about how thin they are and whether they can walk a block in the shoes they’re wearing, also feel compelled to spend in the neighborhood of $2,000 on a purse. And it isn’t only wealthy women who are shelling out; middle-class women, working women, even schoolgirls are also deeply conscious of what they are carrying. If a serious bag once signified that you were a grown-up, now the brand name on your bag signifies what kind of grown-up you are.

Gallagher attempts to explain the annual prominence of a few particular purses with a survey that ranges from Freud’s unsurprising opinions on the subject (“He proposed that the purse—in his day, a capacious, satchel-like affair—was a symbol of woman and that placing an object inside it represented sexual intercourse”) to the observations of a Condé Nast fashion director with the markings of an amateur historian, who contends that the roots of the current situation lie in the booming ’80s, the decade when purses first took center stage: “It was Wall Street! It was excess, it was more and more! It was big gold chains! It was very much ‘Let’s get a big watch. A pink alligator bag!’”

Gallagher barely touches on another reason for the ascendance of the handbag in these label-obsessed times: A bag always fits. If that Marc Jacobs frock seems meant for an Olsen twin, that Marc Jacobs quilted tote is one-size-fits-all. And another thing: No matter how wretched your outfit, the “right” handbag lends an imprimatur of glamour. As Kathryn Finney points out in her unintentionally poignant How to Be a Budget Fashionista: “If you’re carrying a $1,000 Christian Dior bag, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a jogging suit from Kmart— people will assume you’re wealthy because of the bag.”

So let’s pull on our sweatpants and take a trip to Madison Avenue, where the bags on shoppers’ slender arms mirror the ones in the showcases. At this very moment, the satchels that seem to capture the imagination are for the most part: advertising their provenance discreetly (bearing tiny initialized plaques rather than monogram upholstery); droopy rather than rigid; and overladen with hardware.

So here are Bottega Venetas, whose distinctive woven leather is itself the calling card; limp Balenciagas, announcing themselves by their louche strings and faintly sinister studs; and massive Paddington Chloes—as if they weren’t weighty enough, they have been further encumbered with brass locks and keys, making them virtually unliftable by anyone over 25. (I have often wondered if the enthusiasm with which some women embrace a backbreaker like the Paddington is a way of flaunting their vigor and strength, an advertisement of their youthful vitality.)

Could Miuccia Prada, who bears a fair degree of responsibility for the current handbag craze, have known that grown-up women wouldn’t want to drag around 50 extra pounds all day long? In the late 1980s, Prada, a former communist and scion of the Milan-based fashion company, revolutionized the handbag world when she introduced an ultralight black backpack made from the kind of nylon employed in the manufacture of Italian army parachutes. (“I wanted to be something more. But I am what I am,” she told The New Yorker a bit wistfully in 1994, reflecting on her transformation from socialist to society figure. “Not everyone can be Albert Schweitzer or Karl Marx.”)

Flinging one of Prada’s backpacks over your shoulder sent much the same message that the stringy, saggy, cracked-leather Balenciaga offered in more recent years—I’m hip; I’m cool; I have broken permanently with the vast undistinguished pocketbooks of my mother’s generation, lumpy carryalls with contents so forbidding that Gallagher describes them as “radioactive”:

Like a medieval chatelaine’s “pocket,” which held money and keys to the household’s larder and treasure, my mother’s purse was an important article filled with important things that children were not to touch.

(In fact, not everyone has abandoned these cavernous carryalls. Nora Ephron, in an essay titled “I Hate My Purse,” lifts the veil on what her mommy-bag frequently contained, offering a frankly disgusting roster that includes used tissues, old tea bags, aging ChapSticks, and unfurled tampons. She also confesses that these days she relies on a plastic shopping tote embellished with an image of a New York City MetroCard—and she insists that she gets compliments on this item.)

Presented by

Lynn Yaeger writes about style and fashion for The Village Voice. She lives in New York City.

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