Jackie O
Jacqueline Kennedy in 1971, from The Secret History of the Handbag by Meredith Etherington-Smith, published by Double-Barrelled Books

This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

If you’re hoping for a Hermès Birkin handbag this Christmas you may be in for a disappointment. And that’s not just because the humanist in your life is unlikely to be able to fork out the £15,000 or so it would cost him – let alone what he’d have to splash out for something a little more special, like the one studded with 18-carat gold and 242 diamonds that sold last month for $185,000.

Nor is it because your name isn’t on the legendary waiting list that has made the Birkin such a prized accessory among the fashionistas. But because it’s become something of an embarrassment. Wealthy customers are queuing instead to send their Birkins back, complaining of a distinctive, heady smell – of marijuana. The whiff of skunk, Hermès has admitted, is the result of bad tanning, and the offending panels will have to be replaced.

Hermès may have spearheaded the phenomenon of ultra-luxurious handbags. But these days all the major designers boast their own overpriced versions. New models this Christmas include Givenchy’s python-embossed bag, a snip at just under £2,000 compared with Valentino’s miniature mink fur one, costing £3,100, or the even more extravagant £4,030 price for the new Dolce and Gabbana. Jostling among these are the rest of the gang: Chloe and Burberry, Gucci and Fendi – all waiting expectantly to be picked, like dewy-eyed strays at Battersea Dogs’ Home.

“The mania for bags – an irrational passion if ever there was one – defines our acquisition-mad cultural moment as surely as the tulip fever that raged through 17th-century Holland defined the burghers of Amsterdam,” writes Daphne Merkin in The Fame Lunches. “Put it another way: we may have lost our moral bearings in these centerless and often incoherent times, but we know what bag we want to carry them in should we ever find them again. Where shoes once reigned supreme as the dominant wardrobe accessory, bags now lead the way as the top fashion signifier.”

And yet it was only towards the end of the 19th century that handbags as we know them first came into being. The first ones were derived from late-18th-century reticules – prettily embroidered pouches for carrying essentials: a little perfume, perhaps, cosmetics, a fan for flirtation. But not money; only the men had real earning power.

It was with the expansion of the railway network, allowing for much easier travel, that bags began to come into their own. It’s no coincidence that many of the most celebrated makers of today’s it bags – Vuitton, Hermès, Mulberry – originated as luggage manufacturers. The “haaaandbaaag” which so astounded Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest would have been one of those early travelling valises that evolved into the flamboyant styles that dazzle us today.

These bags reflected the new freedoms women were beginning to enjoy. “Unlike a flimsy mesh reticule . . . this bag snapped shut, and for the first time women could carry their things with some degree of privacy,” explains the historian Anna Johnson. “Men, who had long carried a lady’s fan or her money, were supplanted by increasingly practical, brilliantly structured bags, and they have been mystified and excluded by the handbag ever since.”
But while for some women the handbag was a liberation, allowing her to roam free with all her essentials, others regarded it as a burden. Feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued for the right to wear pockets rather than bags, as they do in her utopian novel Herworld.

But these alternatives did nothing to halt the progress of the handbag because, as women became more powerful, what they carried on their wrist began to signify status. One of the most iconic exhibits in the Design Museum’s current exhibition “Women Fashion Power” is a powder-blue suit worn by Margaret Thatcher. And over her arm hangs her signature Ferragamo handbag: middle-class, sensible, durable. There could be no more potent sign that beneath the Iron Lady lay a modest Grantham housewife busy balancing the budget.
So notorious was Thatcher’s bag that in popular mythology it came to be seen as a metaphorical weapon, used to “handbag” the Opposition and to subdue anyone who dared to cross her. She even referred to that famous bag as her “trusty companion”.
Bags, then, are far more than mere accessories. “They also serve as the portable manifestation of a woman’s sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior,” claims Daphne Merkin. “An omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life – the crucial Filofaxed information as well as the frivolous, lipsticky stuff.”

And that’s what sociologists Julia Twigg and Christina Buse discovered when they interviewed women with dementia about their handbags. Material objects are often used in the treatment of dementia, to prompt memories and reinforce a sense of identity. But handbags have particular significance for women because, Twigg suggests, they are an extension of the self, biographical objects which can unlock associations with past events and emotions.

Handbags assume even more significance for those women who live in residential care homes, where they have only limited possessions and so tend to keep items that provide a link with a past life, and give a sense of comfort. So handbags are often a key element:

Freighted with social and personal meaning, they are about much more than the practicalities of life. They are items of fashion, markers of public identity and status. But they are also intensely private. Closely connected to the individual, they contain an assortment of Objects designed to provide support in the enactment of self: make-up, scarves, identity cards, money, personal photographs, talismans, memory objects.

These women, the researchers found, would use their handbags as a way of marking out “private” space in the public area of the lounge, reserving a seat by placing their bag on top:

During observations in the care homes many women would sit with their handbag on their lap, or would reach down by the side of their chair to check if it was still there ... The embodied, habitual practice of carrying a handbag was something that was ingrained in many women, and was carried forward to the new setting of the care home, proving a sense of comfort and bodily continuity.

But handbags are also intensely private spaces, where hidden aspects of one’s identity may be stored. They are, as the psychologist Adam Phillips put it, “sophisticated transformations [and replications] of our bodies.”

And Freud assigned to them distinctly genital connotations. In his case history of Dora, he suggests that her playing with her “reticule” is representative of masturbating, and that her dream of a jewel case was “only a substitute for the shell of Venus, for the female genitals”.

That can be an alarming prospect when you consider what most of us store inside that most private of parts: old train tickets, used tissues, four pens that don’t work plus one that does, and has leaked all over the lining, several lipsticks, tattered business cards from anonymous donors. And that’s before the essential items like keys, smartphone, iPod, wallet, credit-card holder, Mars Bar and perfume.

In her seminal essay “I Hate My Purse” Nora Ephron struck a chord with all those women “who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganisation, a chronic inability to throw anything away . . .”

And if you’ve ever wondered why, no matter how costly the bag, no matter how many zips and pockets, you can never find anything, Nora can explain:

Here’s what happens with a purse. You start small. You start pledging yourself to neatness. You start vowing that This Time It Will Be Different, you start with the things you absolutely need. . . But . . . before you know it, your purse weighs 20 pounds and you are in grave danger of needing an operation just from carrying it around.

Everything you own is in your purse. You could flee the Cossacks with your purse. But when you open it up, you can’t find a thing in it – your purse is just a big dark hole full of stuff that you spend hours fishing around for. A flashlight would help, but if you were to put it into your purse, you’d never find it.

Daphne Merkin’s The Fame Lunches is published by Seven Stories Press