After the Prada bag that lives in seclusion, my second most-favored bag is a purple cordura Zo Bag. It’s a humble bag of working-class origins, with few seams and a tough lining on the inside to keep papers dry, and no fancy hardware. Mine is a little worn and a little dirty and completely indestructible. My third dearest bag is a black vinyl doctor’s bag that looks really prim and 1950s, but it has “f**k” printed all over it in white type; I love this purse for the reactions it gets.
My treasured fourth bag is a black leather hobo from Juicy Couture, with many pouches and an attached mirror with its own pocket. What I love is the small size, the heavy-duty chain handles that look like they were recycled from vehicle tow chains (no delicate silver work here), and the fact that I can drag this purse everywhere dressy because on first glance, it looks like a proper handbag, not a concealed weapon. And finally, my last purse, my current everyday bag, is a black pebbled-leather Furla with silver hardware. It has a twist of silver mesh across the handbag opening, and it sometimes gets in the way, but I love this purse for the simple shape, its capacity, and the quality of the workmanship.
I have gotten to the point where I realize having everyone in a 200-yard radius know the brand of my handbag is not important. You see women everyday with Vuitton or Coach bags or whatever, consciously advertising their taste or their apparent social rank. It’s sort of silly, considering that a lot of those bags are clearly fakes (leather doesn’t crack like that, but vinyl does) and that having an expensive handbag is often more of a hindrance than anything. A clever thief or pickpocket will target you, because an expensive, loudly-branded purse doesn’t stay under the radar. Who you are is not your purse, or anything else you’re wearing for that matter, and if you have ever been run into or bashed by a purse-wearing egomaniac with an engorged sense of entitlement who pretended you didn’t exist or glared at you instead of saying excuse me, you’ll understand what I mean.
I recall something I have heard over the years. A store clerk once told me that to know if someone has money, you look at the accessories, not the clothes. He told me, a less well-off person will wear their nicest clothes to go shopping, but their shoes are cheap or worn-out and they carry generic sorts of bags. He said, a well-off person will dress plainly to not draw attention to themselves, but look at their handbag and their shoes and their watch, discretely check the brand and the quality, and you’ll know if they have taste and discretionary income.
I thought he was a jerk, but I have tried to experiment with it over the years. One time about fifteen years ago, a lovely DKNY bag was paired with some borrowed Ferragamos, along with my torn and patched jeans and an ordinary white blouse. I walked into a Nordstrom shoe department and the department manager zeroed in on me and helped me buy five pairs of shoes over the next hour. This clearly vexed a woman who had been waiting for someone to wait on her before I had even arrived. It’s not a solid scientific conclusion, but I would change purses sometimes before going shopping or to a nicer restaurant. It seemed important at the time.
In the years since, especially when I’ve noticed myself boldly going out there and satiating my bag fetish, that it seems to be more about the purse than ever. Everyone seems to be carrying a luxury bag, or what appears to be a luxury bag (soooo many fakes). And I’ve begun to reconsider my bag-focus. I wouldn’t turn down a Birkin if one were given to me, but I have a hard time imagining paying that much for a bag and waiting for X number of years when I don’t find the shape appealing. In fact, it seems to me to be a bag carried by troublesome celebrity-types and other shallow people, and the Birkin’s shape mostly screams grandma purse to me. I also don’t make it a point of wearing something because someone famous (or infamous) was seen wearing it; in fact, I try and do the opposite. Celebrity-fashion worship seems to me the highest form of superficiality.
I remember hearing once that Chanel had raised their price on their classic quilted bag with the crossed C’s and the long chain because a store employee stated to a journalist “too many secretary-types were buying the bag.” I have no idea if it was true or not, but I was deeply offended by this. Apparently, only women of a certain social class or with a certain approved career path were allowed to purchase and carry a Chanel bag. Some woman, struggling along as a secretary or an administrative assistant, wasn’t good enough to make a purchase in a Chanel store, much less have a nice bag she enjoyed.
I have begun to think there’s a purse backlash. Perhaps the price of a fine handbag is sometimes too stratospheric to be considered even remotely sensible. A good consumer buys the highest quality object she can afford because of the lasting value of her investment, but brand name is often mistaken for actual quality. And how much is too much? Is it $800, or $1,000, or $10,000? Would anyone actually feel comfortable carrying a $100,000 purse? Maybe those throngs of women wearing their expensive handbags aren’t just fashion victims, but contemptible or even disgusting in their display of conspicuous over-consumption. What does your handbag say? Oh, no!—what does my handbag say?
It’s an unfortunate full circle that my bag obsession has taken. From seemingly innocent beginnings, it has drifted into hoarding and stalking, and spending copious amounts of money that might have better been spent or invested elsewhere. I have gone from fascination to dedication, to addiction, and finally to guilt and shame. Yes—I now have purse guilt.
But … it’s just a purse. At the end of the day, it’s a personal item transport device, a bag for my stuff, the place where my headphone cords wrap around my wallet. It’s the place where, no matter what, I can’t find my keys. I like my purse. I sort of need it.
This is where I get all weird and hippie-dippy, so you can disregard the rest if you really need to. Live in denial; refuse to see the brutality before you. But you’re excused if need be. There was a lot of darkness surrounding the joy of a simple purse purchase—the whole meaning of the bag had been lost in a fog of consumer frenzy for unnecessary luxury products. Because I now have decided to be zen and focused about the whole purse thing. I choose to be at peace with my handbag collection.
I am a grown-up now; I can and will clean and get rid of a few before I ever consider buying another. I don’t actually need another purse, but I acknowledge how much I enjoy them. I will not purchase any purse, of any cost, but especially if it is a considerable sum, unless I do so carefully and taking all valid points into consideration, including the rareness of the bag and the price it commands and whether I really, truly see any reason to purchase it at this point in time. And if I do make the purchase, I will do so fearlessly and without remorse, as I only have myself to answer to.
In fact, I proudly proclaim myself purse-centric, and I welcome all my sisters with open arms, all of us who are handbag-obsessed. I even welcome our sisters with the shoes. We are who we are, we have what we have, and we recognize our strengths and our failings. Because we are not our handbags, or our shoes, and we do know what’s really important, and if, in the face of all this, we responsibly decide to enjoy our [fill in the blank], then we will do so, responsibly.
Go out there, fearlessly, and ask not for whom the handbag calls. Ask them if it comes in black.
Part 1 | Part 2