Killing Johnny Fry by Walter Mosley

It's In the Bag: What Purses Reveal -- and Conceal

by Winnifred Gallagher

Published by HarperCollins

128 pages, 2006





A Whole New Bag

Reviewed by Tracy Quan

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but when Monica Lewinsky began marketing handbags, I couldn't help seeing her new career path as a very in-your-face, albeit symbolic, revenge.

Thanks to Sigmund Freud, the handbag has become a proxy for the most intimate part of a woman's body. Sometimes we take this at face value, not realizing that Freud's theory was actually quite subtle. When he cooked it up, bags had been exclusively a guy thing for centuries. It was men, not women, who were always putting things inside their purses and satchels. And yet, we now expect little girls -- not boys -- to play with purses when they play dress-up.

So how did the purse become a woman thing? Winifred Gallagher's latest book takes a concise, witty look at the handbag's social journey. A better title might have been Your Handbag and What It Means to Be Modern, for the age of handbags (as we know it) did not really take off until the early 1900s.

As women's financial independence increased, we acquired more stuff, went more places and felt compelled to carry our belongings with us. Gallagher gets us thinking about why we can't just leave all our stuff behind and venture forth, bagless and free. She compares our handbags to homes, referring to "silent partners" and "security blankets" to prove her point. Not every handbag is created equal either.

Does carrying one of these grown-up security blankets make you a slave to fashion, or a more independent, mobile person? Gallagher engages sociologists, historians and, of course, bag designers, and comes up with some remarkable answers. Fashion historian Valerie Steele thinks women with multiple bags are practicing a form of serial monogamy, while a shoe collection is more like "a harem." Steele sums it up as "affairs versus marriage." In other words, shoe collectors are sexual tomboys, while handbag lovers embody feminine virtue. If your harem, like mine, consists of handbags, you might, as I did, take exception to these roles.

The extreme narcissism of today's handbag owner makes us forget that a bag expresses more than the consumer's personality. Gallagher wants to remind us that handbags have parents, too. Well-known designers like Miuccia Prada, Anya Hindmarch and Isaac Mizrahi spend a lot of their time understanding how our practical and emotional needs can be jointly served by the latest It Bag. But Gallagher shows how these high-end artisans differ when they discuss the personal obsessions that shape their bags, for designers themselves are shaped by diverse forces and family backgrounds. Miuccia Prada, "born into accessories," runs a business that was started by her grandfather. When you contemplate a well made Prada bag, you realize that keeping a family business vital, innovative and profoundly relevant is more of an art than a privilege.

The more you can afford to spend on a handbag, the more likely you are to think it's all about you. A sleek tote that advertises hard won financial victories; a whimsical evening bag saucily conceived by Lulu Guinness to mimic a corset; a Bottega Veneta creation that comes with extra buckles, hidden compartments, a tiny mirror.

While each may reveal the problematic secrets of the owner's heart, the actual brains behind our bags aren't necessarily our own. | April 2007


Tracy Quan is the author of the Nancy Chan novels: Diary of a Married Call Girl and Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. Her writing has appeared in numerous venues including Cosmopolitan, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, The Globe & Mail,  Der Tagesspiegel and South China Morning Post. She lives in New York, where she is currently writing her next Nancy Chan adventure, Diary of a Transatlantic Call Girl. You can visit her on the Web.