Carried Away

A woman's truest friend is her handbag - her whole life is packed in there

September 17, 2000|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

A woman's woman's handbag can be the most essential, dependable, cluttered, dramatic, sensual element in her life.

She may rely upon it more than she does upon her sitter or her husband. It can hold more secrets than her most faithful friend.

Its loss might be felt more keenly than the loss of a hairdresser, yet a new handbag can feel like a new love: the promise of a fresh start and the hope for perfection.

Her handbag can be as whimsical as beads, fur and straw flowers or as severe as black patent leather. It might be large enough to carry a laptop, a Palm Pilot and workout clothes, or too small to hold more than a lipstick and a credit card.

In the end, husbands and lovers may disappoint or depart. Children grow up and away. Friends prove fickle. Styles change. The moon waxes and wanes.

But the handbag is forever.

"I have my handbag with me every minute," says Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of "Handbags: A Lexicon of Style." (Rizzoli Publications, 1999)

"My whole life is in there."

Women we adore carry a bag we covet, and they are linked forever in our imaginations: Coco Chanel's quilted bag with chain strap, Grace Kelly's Hermes bag, Sophia Loren's Ferragamo bag, Princess Diana's Lady Dior, the Jackie bag from Gucci, and Queen Elizabeth II's practical Launer bags (one for every ensemble).

During her tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher was so often photographed with her purse -- she called it her "constant companion" -- that one of them has been preserved in a museum in Cambridge.

More lasting, however, may be the place that purse holds in the lexicon of political language. Thanks to Thatcher, the Oxford English Dictionary now defines the verb "to handbag" to mean "to attack verbally, to bully."

From a little girl's white vinyl First Communion snap-purse to grandma's chain-mail evening bag. From the backpack to the diaper bag. From the fanny pack to the briefcase. From Louis Vuitton to Kate Spade, a woman's handbag is a hybrid of utility and fashion, a dumping place for the detritus of all her roles, the repository of all her responsibilities. Her handbag is the thing she fingers and handles and slings over her shoulder. The thing she would be lost without.

Life's souvenirs

A woman's purse says much about her, but hides more: The bills she keeps forgetting to pay; the pills she must take every day; the tube of concealer that disguises her age, the program from a ballet recital she can't bring herself to discard.

"Every decade of a woman's life, she carries a handbag for a different reason," says Irenka Jakubiak, editor in chief of Accessories magazine.

"Handbags are more than a piece of equipment for a woman," says Steele. "They play a number of psychological as well as practical roles. And that's because women are playing so many roles and the handbag is the facilitator. She is beautiful and feminine, successful, in shape. She has a family and an intellectual life."

Handbags are where a woman's fantasy life meets her real life. She might think of herself as the golden "It" girl with the latest Fendi Baguette under her arm. In her imagination, it contains no more than a passport and a toothbrush. But her life requires that a woman also carry a washable microfiber bucket tote, filled with everything she'd need if she were trapped in an elevator for the weekend with her toddler.

"Women have become like turtles: carrying our homes on our backs," says Michele Marini Pittenger, vice president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America.

The answer is to buy both the mother-ship tote and the dainty dinghy fashion bag -- plus everything in between. And that's what women are doing.

Sales shoot up

Handbag sales have never been hotter. According to the NPD Group, a marketing information company based in Port Washington, N.Y., handbag sales reached half a billion dollars last fall and the sales of whimsical evening bags jumped almost 40 percent.

Even presidential paramour Monica Lewinsky has found her place in purses. She now markets the knitting bag styles she stitched up for friends while she waited for Ken Starr to pounce.

What began a century ago as an optional accessory for carrying calling cards or a hanky has become the new status symbol. Fashion houses like Gucci, Fendi and Prada are hiring young designers to spruce up their accessory lines because they can make half of their money from those sales: While a $3,000 suit might be out of reach for most women, there appears to be healthy demand for a $500 to $900 handbag.

Few designer handbags cost less than Kate Spade's trademark boxy tote at $150, and some can cost tens of thousands.

There is a blazing passion for purses right now, and it can be traced to the successful marketing of the idea that a woman should have a wardrobe of handbags instead of "one good bag." But Fendi, which introduced the Baguette in 1997, lit the match with its Beanie Baby approach.

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