(published in DIE DAME, translated into German, April 12, 2018)
Recently I was waiting in the doctor’s office, impatiently watching my daughter build her 8th Lego skyscraper. I began to open emails I’d otherwise delete. These usually begin with a credible subject header such as: “282 items just for you, April!”
Seriously? For moi? In a turbo capitalist’s wet dream, well, yes…
Boredom can help you break out of unhealthy patterns. So I opened this email, eager to see what some algorithm had picked out just for me. Boom. There it was. That thing known as a Kelly.
There was little hesitation. I had to have it. What? A purse that costs more than a 1984 Porsche? Yes. Though I must say, I never wanted one before, but now? A bargain? Let’s do the math: It cost more than a used Porsche but less than a new Hermes. The question is: Is my prefrontal cortex fully awake and wanting to reward the savvy shopper or fully paralyzed by the outright lie that I just don’t want this bag but I NEED THIS BAG. I straddled the dilemma. I’m a big believer in meditation, after all. I observed my desire for handbag salvation, took a deep breath and went back to watching the kid erect model buildings that would have made Bruno Taut drip with envy.
I had been intrigued for years that so many were dying to have one of these bags. Some people make pilgrimages to Mecca, others put their names on waiting lists at Hermes for, what, 3 years? I had read about the phenomenon in one of those paperbacks you’d never admit to reading. It was written by the kind of mom I’d never be, but I was doing research at the time on the kind of mom I needed to know for my own novel. The Pirañas of Park Avenue, or at least that’s the way I am remembering the title now. Flesh-eating fish. Ja. That’s it. Those Upper-Eastside Manhattan moms with whom I share not a wot of likely concerns. Or did I? I’ve always thought of myself as a friendly grass-grazing type, not a carnivorous predator, but maybe I was delusional. (After all, I am a fan of Superfoods.)
As for bags, in general, for me, it’s practicality that dictates. I have a bad back, frozen shoulders, a neck like Frankenstein. So when I carry a bag, if at all, it’s going to be one of those recyclable jute bags I can shove in my pocket. For spontaneous shopping sprees, you see, to be filled at any given moment with broccoli and coconut milk on sale.
But that other women make bodily sacrifices to look fashionable intrigued me. Maybe these are bags for ladies with drivers. What are they carrying anyway? Megaphones? The keys to the house, the office, the swimming pool shed? And, what? A few coins for ice cream? (Coins, notoriously, will damage the interior of your bag, beware.)
Googling the mentality of this species is hilarious. You’ll find x-number of articles on the top ten things successful women carry, 14 essential things allsuccessful women carry, 50 (!) mysterious things successful women carry in their bags. Fifty? Besides bandaids and valium, and, ok, yes, tampons, I’m having a hard time imagining this.
Recently, I had started noticing Instagram stars carrying big bags. Men carrying lady bags! Look it up. Seriously. Italians, of course, you shake your head and wonder at my wonder, and the occasional Asian blogger star. BryanBoy carries a Chanel Boy (and a Hermes Birkin, what else?) and the stylist street-star Graziano di Cintio carries a different oversized clutch every day! When I contacted him over Instagram to ask him when he started doing this, he said he couldn’t remember. Sometime in the 1990s, he thinks, and he had a laugh that I considered his bags “big.”
Of the big bags and so-called IT bags, never ever in my life have I wanted a Chloe Paddington. Until I began researching this article, didn’t even know what one looked like. The Paddington was one of those must-have bags in the 1990s, largely because of its professed waiting list. Having trouble imagining it? You too are not an IT bagger? Picture the Hermes Kelly put through the washing machine with an oversized lock and enough straps to hold it down to your saddle. Something for the cityslicker who might lasso a large bull on any given street corner — if she could move fast enough, that is. How, tell me, is she going to catch a bull (or the cowboy) with that freaking ball and chain around her shoulder. Imagine actually wanting to carry a bag with a big heavy useless lock on it?
Which leads me to conclude: Are IT bags for masochists? The lock doesn’t lock anything. It’s just for looks. It looks secure. Which leads me further: Are handbags a sign of insecurity? A sign of fear? Carrying bandaids, after all, presumes that you will get hurt. Carrying a hair brush assumes that your hair will get messy. Carrying a toothbrush is of course in case you eat garlic and have a date with a vampire later on. (Vampires, as we all know, are great lookers, they dress well, and they have castles. Believe me, you do not want to fuck up your date with a vampire!) What else fits in your handbag? Your hand gun, of course. You see? Handbags are for people who leave the house in fear!
Thinking a little harder, I have repressed the fact that I carried a Marc Jacobs Stam for a while. It was so heavy! It was Jacobs, after all, who famously made it his mission to have girls spend more than a month’s rent on one of his bags. (And he meant rent in Manhattan!) And that’s just it, this thing about IT bags: They are constructed to be unattainable, illusive. In the late 1990s, there was that turn in the fashion industry, when couture houses (exotic fish) began to be swallowed up by conglomerates (whales) and their shareholders. No one wants to invest in a sinking ship! IT bags to the rescue. . Just look at all the ads in the front of fashion mags today: models holding bags, bags, bags in the most awkward ways. Bags, it turns out, are lifeboats. And they are pitched to us minions as safety nets (investments). Lesson no 1 of the handbook Capitalism for Children: So long as we continue to believe so, it’s true!
As the doctor finally calls out STAUFFENBERG, I’m furiously typing my Amex number into my phone. Done. (After all, I, too, must do my part to save the whales.) Princess Grace Kelly, the namesake of my new (old) bag, by the way, carried only two Kelly bags her whole life long. Classic, hers were dark brown and navy. What a spartan! Victoria Beckham, by contrast, is said to own 100s of Hermes bags. If you life goal is to enter the Imelda Marcos hall of fame, I guess that’s ok.
But the Kelly was first used as a demure instrument of hiding. The newlywed Princess of Monaco was first pictured in the yellow press carrying her Hermes “sac de ville” — or so it was called back then— in order to hide her emerging pregnancy.
I’m not hiding anything now except my shame, the guilt I feel in having made the plunge. I’m begging for redemption. The only designer I know to ever take the piss out of the whole IT bag phenomena was Raf Simon who in 2011 designed a sardonic anti-IT bag for Jil Sander, calling it the Market Bag. It was made out of orange plastic and I am dying to have one.
We can trace the IT bag craze, though, back to Venice in the 1940s. Roberta di Camerinobags were so beloved that many companies plagiarized them shamelessly. It was Camerino’s trellis logo of interlocking R’s that preceded the GG pattern of Gucci, and even up to today, her signature velvet trompe l’oeil patterns certainly have had a heavy influence on Prada’s most recent line.
Sci-fi William Gibson hit it on the head: “We’re moving toward a world where all the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to identify more with their consumer status or with the products they consume then they would with ... any sort of antiquated notion of nationality.”
And I now belong to the HERMES nation.