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The time is perfect for a short, smart purse book. The "good bag" has nudged out shoes, jeans, and jewelry as the must–have fashion possession. Despite price hikes –– $1,445 for a Prada bowler bag that once cost $940 –– the craze for high–end purses helps fuel the booming luxury–goods market and, via knock–offs, hugely influences the $6 billion–a–year mainstream handbag industry. But purse mania isn't just an outgrowth of a strong luxury–goods market –– human thoughts, feelings, and dreams are involved, too. As ...
The time is perfect for a short, smart purse book. The "good bag" has nudged out shoes, jeans, and jewelry as the must–have fashion possession. Despite price hikes –– $1,445 for a Prada bowler bag that once cost $940 –– the craze for high–end purses helps fuel the booming luxury–goods market and, via knock–offs, hugely influences the $6 billion–a–year mainstream handbag industry. But purse mania isn't just an outgrowth of a strong luxury–goods market –– human thoughts, feelings, and dreams are involved, too. As Nadia, a high–powered interior designer says, "My cell and my big Tod's purse –– that is my life."
In IT'S IN THE BAG, noted journalist Winifred Gallagher explains it what means for a purse to be a life. This cultural history of the handbag borrows from psychology (Freud noted that sometimes a purse is a vagina –– which is perhaps why the first "handbags" were carried by men!), sociology (a purse as a "status symbol") and even economics (Why have prices gotten so steep?). Researched and erudite yet always fun, Winifred Gallagher offers in IT'S IN THE BAG a charming theory of modern identity as seen through one of our keenest obsessions.
From Pouch to Prada
Midway between the ritzy uptown Manhattan stores of Hermès and Fendi and the boho downtown meccas of Prada, Marc Jacobs, and such small shops as Rafē and Jamin Puech, lies the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a treasure trove of riches that bring the modern purse's history to life. When not on display, the fifteen hundred handbags in its collection rest in a special climate and light-controlled storage zone several floors above the exhibition space.
It's hard to believe that FIT's vintage bags, much less the Chloé Edith, Fendi B, and Marc Jacobs Stam, are descended from a simple drawstring pouch of the sort found with the frozen body of a Neolithic man discovered in 1991 in an alpine glacier near the Italian-Austrian border. By the medieval era, men carried money and keys in a more elaborate bag suspended from their belts, which attracted thieves who accordingly became known as "cutpurses." In the seventeenth century, men's clothes were equipped with sewn-in pockets, a development that dealt the "man bag" a blow from which it has never really recovered.
Strange as it seems, for most of history women didn't have purses. In the medieval era they wore "pockets," or pouches that tied around the waist, which were later,depending on fashion, sometimes replaced by the sewn-in sort. It was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the slim, revealing Empire look ruled out bulky pockets, that chic women took up the new reticule, which resembled our dainty modern evening bag. As women's status and independence slowly increased, so did their need for a handbag. By the Victorian era, when ladies began to travel more, manufacturers obliged them with mass-produced, metal-framed bags whose large, satchel-like shapes and locks look oddly contemporary today.
The true "age of handbags," however, began in the early-twentieth century when, whether for work or pleasure, women moved about much more freely and needed to carry not just wallets and keys but also makeup. By the 1920s the ubiquity of the lipstick and mirrored compact helped to make the purse an important fashion accessory.
In a special section of the FIT museum's cloistered storage area, Clare Sauro, the curator of the accessories collection, dons white cotton gloves before hunting for treasures that illustrate the purse's post-1920s development. Moving through aisles of steel shelves filled with boxes labeled "Hermès" and the like, she says that until relatively recently in Europe, most great purses--even on the runway--weren't produced by fashion houses but by French and Italian leather goods firms known for their fine saddlery, such as Hermès and Gucci, or luggage, such as Prada and Louis Vuitton. These venerable companies successfully translated their expertise with luxurious but practical leather goods into elegant, durable, classic handbags.
For much of the twentieth century in America, which lacks Europe's long tradition of producing fine leather goods, most women carried purses created by anonymous designers--some highly skilled--employed by handbag manufacturers. Laying an elegant black clutch from the 1930s on a cushioned, specially lighted table, Sauro notices what looks like dust on her protective gloves. "Oh! She's crocking," says the curator. "When suede decomposes, it starts to come off." Putting the bag aside for conservation, Sauro says that she particularly treasures such elegant American purses, because in this practical nation, "the idea of the bag as an exquisite jewel mostly isn't there."
Like much of America's clothing, its handbags have long tended toward the casual and functional. Sauro points to a transitional moment in the 1940s, when smaller, more refined bags like the chic little clutch gave way to large, sturdy ones--a change that reflected women's more active "Rosie the Riveter"-inspired lives during World War II. When the soldiers and sailors came home to court and marry, clothes and accessories, such as the fanciful straw figural and Lucite box purses of the fifties, briefly became feminine and dainty again.
In the same decade, however, the sporty strain of American bags was evolving in the practical but stylish direction epitomized by the great designer Bonnie Cashin. Her purses for Coach, several of which are in FIT's collection, might have been designed yesterday. Indeed, Cashin's user-friendly, streamlined styling, good leather, and handsome hardware live on in the bags and totes made not only by Coach, but also Kate Spade, Donna Karan, and other American designers today.
Across the Atlantic, the 1950s ushered in two iconic purses that preceded today's numerous It bags. Holding up a gorgeous brown crocodile Kelly, Sauro points out that this Hermès classic was inspired by a saddlebag. (Similarly, Louis Vuitton's pouchy Noé shoulder bag was modeled on a wine carrier; FIT's bright red Hermès bucket purse, embellished only with "Swiss cheese" perforations, might be an elegant thoroughbred's nose bag.) Underscoring the utilitarian inspiration behind some of Europe's most luxurious purses, Sauro picks up a Chanel 2.55--named for its February 1955 birth date--and points out that the purse's signature quilting derived from the jackets worn by racetrack stable boys. Even its celebrated gold strap was made from the same utilitarian chain Chanel used to weigh down her classic jacket's hem. The forward-looking career woman also hung her 2.55 from the shoulder, presciently freeing other women to follow her example and grab life with both hands. In the 1980s Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel and has since produced seemingly endless variations on Coco's purse, which remains a gold mine for the fashion house.
In the 1960s fashion, like the rest of Western culture, questioned traditional rules. Gently jiggling one of the era's Paco Rabanne purses, made of linked metal disks, Sauro says, "The structured bag almost disappeared. Fashion was casual, and there were lots of fabric and ethnic bags." Toward the end of the 1970s, again reflecting a cultural shift, the purse assumed more form, epitomized by the period's crisp little disco bags.
Excerpted from It's In the Bag by Winifred Gallagher Copyright © 2006 by Winifred Gallagher. Excerpted by permission.
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