For my mother, her first expensive bag was a promise. When my father's job briefly transferred him to San Francisco, he returned home to Iowa with an expensive purse from the exclusive I. Magnin store. After her friends were envious, she knew an engagement ring would be next.
A purse is the first outward sign of financial pride for my nieces who proudly carry around hard-earned babysitting money, and the last vestige of independence for elderly women. Bernice, my mother-in-law, carried a Coach leather purse until she died at age 95. When she started using a walker and couldn't manage a handbag, I'd hold it until we got to the car and the first words out of her mouth were,? Where's my purse?? It was such a part of her life that after she died, my brother-in-law hung her purse in his shed, so he always knows where it is.
Maybe the Egyptians had the right idea and women should be buried with their favorite purses.
You can see the changes in a woman's life by her purse. Edie, who used to be known for her cute, tiny, whimsical purses, ruefully says she now has a "mommy" bag. "People make fun of me, it's so big," she says. Made out of canvas, "because I trash my bags," her purse contains scotch tape, ribbon, makeup, 3 wallets, (two are her children's), change, her daughter's hair scrunchy, old letters, a mammogram reminder postcard, pens that don't work, toys for the kids and an empty eyeglass case.
Jane, a nurse and the mother of two girls who lives in a San Francisco suburb, says, "I used to need a very large purse, good looking (had to be nice leather) and be able to carry lots of stuff (champagne bottle, make up bag, extra pair pantyhose, hairbrush, address book, wallet,) you know-the basics--just in case! Now, I commute so I like a backpack. The weight is divided over my shoulders, and I can carry a book and read while I stand on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).
Ask a woman about her purse and she'll open up --her bag and her life. Nathalie Lecroc, a Parisian artist, has made a living out of immortalizing women's purses. Socialites, models and housewives climb four flights of winding steps to her tiny apartment located next to strip clubs. There she does her own version of a peep show, asking clients to empty their purse on her table so she can create a delicate watercolor of the contents. She and the client name the purse that will be immortalized in her upcoming book, Anthologies du Sac. Her only stipulations are that women do not edit their bags and that they bring their "everyday" bags.
All woman have a bag that they don't leave home without?it would be like walking out of the house naked. Apparently Queen Elizabeth even walks around the Windsor castle holding her classic handbag, which pundit's suspect contains treats for her corgis.
If you really want to know a woman, it's in her purse, but investigate those hidden depths at your own peril. When I caught my college boyfriend going through my bag, it was the beginning of the end of our relationship. Debbie describes a purse invasion like someone walking into the bathroom while she's taking a shower. "I let my partner and my kids look in my purse, but I always feel vulnerable if they do. They're usually just looking for cash from the wallet, or when driving, I ask the kids to fish for my sunglasses or cell phone. But, it's weird how the inside side of a purse is a sanctuary of some sorts," she says. My husband is terrified to touch my purse--even when I ask him to-which is one reason we're still happily married after 22 years.
There is nothing like a purse in a man's life. They put money in their wallets and the rest in their pockets. Women and men's roles have drastically altered and overlapped during the past 50 years, but feminism has not changed the need for purses. In fact handbags have never been so prominent. Purses are the most sought-after accessories, generating millions for the companies that produce them. New "It" bags, with yearlong waiting lists, have saved entire fashion houses. "One thing about purses is that there's no size issue," notes Debbie. "Purses don't discriminate. A friend who's got a few extra pounds told me that overweight people love shoes and purses."
Women fall into craving categories: those who love jewelry, clotheshorses, shoe horns and purse collectors. For those who can't make the commitment to one designer purse, there is Bag Borrow Or Steal. This website allows members to borrow bags for a fee which they can buy if they can't part with the purse after the trial run. Edie and Debbie would be good customers. They both love designer purses but can't justify the expense. "I think a fine purse is a great fashion accessory and adds a classy touch to an outfit. Like shoes; a purse can make or break you," says Debbie. "But, for $300, I could get a whole outfit, so even when I had the money, I just couldn't shell out that much for a purse."
Faux designer bags sold at purse parties are all the rage but I agree with Carrie Bradshaw when she turned down a fake Fendi on "Sex in the City." It's all or nothing for me. On my honeymoon in France 20 years ago my husband wanted to buy me a Luis Vuitton purse. I had fantasized about owning one, but the price tag made me balk. Fortunately my husband insisted and it became my lucky purse that I took on every job interview.
My husband also found my current everyday bag, a backpack we saw in a window in Paris. This mauve buffalo-hide backpack resembles a sleek oversize envelope. Every time I wear it people stop me on the street and ask where I found it. It may be the best purse I will ever find and that's why my current behavior is so puzzling.
I've always been a one-purse woman who buys a quality bag and uses it until it falls apart. I don't like switching bags with outfits because inevitably I leave something important behind. It seems so complicated to have a purse wardrobe- like having an affair. And yet, lately I've been unfaithful to my backpack.
Blame it on a midlife crisis, but I recently bought three new purses. A pink evening bag at Burberry (75% off!) that I couldn't resist. My husband and I rarely attend fancy events anymore and yet I thought if I had the right bag, invitations would be forthcoming. When I was getting my nails done I spotted a handmade bag from the Dominican Republic (half off!) with a pattern reminiscent of the curtains I tried to climb as a toddler in Iowa in the 50's. Finally, a pink, paisley, canvas bag spoke to me at the Madrid (duty-free) section of the airport. After 20 years of marriage, should my husband be concerned?
When a woman changes her purse she changes her life--or at least hopes to change her life. Whatever reason for my purse indiscretions, I'm hoping it will keep my husband on my toes and add some spice to our marriage. Who knows, I may even get a new bag out of it!
By: Ruth Carlson