I had started out thinking handbags and purses were the same thing.
I was a handbag newbie, an unpaid writer, an impartial observer hired as a ghost memoirist for the CEO of a luxury-handbag resale site. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I had a cursory sense of the major brands: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès—but like many of my bookish friends, I had dismissed such flashy handbags as frivolous.
Working in the startup, I was surrounded by stacks of bags, fielding questions from visitors who could not contain their awe. I became intimately acquainted with their proper names (the Kelly), their exorbitant price tags (last year, Christie’s HK sold a matte Himalayan crocodile-skin Birkin for $300,168), and the reverence they command.
I narrated the CEO’s personal story in vignettes developed around her most memorable bags. It was a tale of empowerment, a progressivist narrative from imitation to high-end. These bags were the synecdoche of the whole woman. They marked a leap in class, but also a spiritual triumph—one that mystified me. Where did the mythos of this curious handbag species begin? Where does it end?
The word “purse” comes from the Medieval Latin bursa. In the Middle Ages, these leather bags were strung around the neck or waist. They were utilitarian—and unisex. But the unisex sack of leather did not evolve into the handbag until the 19th century. And the seasonal flux of the fashion handbag didn’t arrive until even later. Even so, their purpose has remained surprisingly steadfast: to expose their wearer’s social station.