Thursday, August 6, 2009

Nice Handbag—But What Does It Mean?

Posted By on 08.06.09 at 03:06 PM

28dc/1249574438-tote.jpg

I'm sure there have been whole dissertations written on the cultural significance of the handbag in contemporary society. Trying to prove myself right, I stumbled across an interesting essay on the subject from Paula Marantz Cohen, an author and professor of English at Drexel University who has written many lively pieces about shopping and style.

Cohen doesn't get so much into the status aspect of bags—that would be a whole other essay, or maybe even a class—focusing instead on their functionality. She thinks it's a nesting instinct: "We need to feel that all the necessities of life are immediately within reach." It does seem to be a female thing: watching Funny People last weekend, I was struck by a scene in which Seth Rogen hops into a limo with Adam Sandler to accompany him to a comedy gig, carrying absolutely nothing.. How do guys do it? No makeup, OK, but do you never need Kleenex, a pen, paper, sunglasses . . . ?

Bags are, of course, for more than just carrying things around—they're an important accessory, carefully chosen to complement or integrate into a look. Even for those of us not normally seduced by designer names, certain bags exert what can only be called gravitational force. I first noticed the Marc by Marc Jacobs Totally Turnlock Teri tote (where the hell did they come up with that name?) in light gray several months ago. I'd never seen it in person (so to speak), but I felt an instant covetousness. That was my bag. But at $438, it offended my sense of financial responsibility. Feeling virtuous, I waited for it to go on sale and searched unsuccessfully for cheaper alternatives that offered the same thrill of recognition.

You already know what happened. I couldn't find any suitable substitutes, and when there was a sale, the site was fresh out of bags by the time I could dig out my credit card. I decided that if I was going to spend months stalking an item, that meant I should have it. I ended up finding one on eBay for significantly less than the retail price, though still up there.

The thing is, I'm not into status bags. Before this my go-to bags included a brown leather number I got at H&M several years ago and a hobo tote I picked up at a clothing swap. I know certain fashion-aware people are going to look at my new bag and simply mentally check off "Marc Jacobs," but it makes me happy, it adds a lot to my wardrobe, and I could afford it. The best style advice I can give can be summarized as "know thyself"—which means accepting your preferences even when you're not entirely happy with the cultural signifiers involved.

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