The Psychology of Designer Handbags

A woman walks into one of the large flagship stores on London’s Bond Street, where she is greeted by a vast display of handbags. Pouches, totes, cross-body, baseball style, shoulder bags and shoppers — the whole handbag family is there, with price tags upwards of £1,000 ($1,317). She is businesslike in her approach, wasting no time on handling them or deliberating over her choice. “That one.” “That one.” “That one.” “That one.” “And that one over there.” She points at five. “I’ll take the rest.” The story was told with both amusement and delight by the store manager.

Ah, the glory of the bag — it’s the item that every brand hopes will sustain them through good times and bad. The product that has been relied upon for sales when ready-to-wear is having a weak season, or in better times, is simply the lovely, high-profile icing on the cake, adorning store windows and providing catwalk fodder, while contributing only a small percentage to the bottom line.

You might have thought that there were enough handbags in the world to see us through to Armageddon. Yet, every season the showrooms of the world’s biggest fashion houses are crammed with new ranges to tempt the customer. Devoted PRs are given the task of enthusing about the newest and most telling details — the reworked links on the handles, the innovative clasp, the soft-sided capacious lightness, the elegant simplicity of the handheld style. And of course, with each season comes the introduction of the new ‘Icon’ bag — a phrase that every time I hear it makes me wince, for its overused appropriation, and which should only be employed in the case of something truly powerful. Not a calf leather tote, no matter how gorgeous.

Still, handbags do so much more than simply the role they fulfill. In the canon of fashion items, the handbag is a relative newcomer having arrived as the new kid in town in the early 20th century. Hermès’ fascinating monograph in “Carried Away”, a lavish illustrated volume, published to accompany a former “Le Cas du Sac” exhibition, features an ancient rock painting in Algeria, where one of the terracotta stick figures appears to have a bag in the crook of their elbow. But as civilisations evolved, bags were rarely attached to the body and were relegated to the company of animals and servants.

The handbag was part of the changes brought about after the First World War and the increasing emancipation of women, for whom carrying a bag became a sign of independence and stature. Women had their own cash and bank accounts, and keys to their own property and cars — and they wanted the world to know it. What better reason to flaunt the fashionable clutch of the 1920s rather than having to burrow for necessities in hidden pockets beneath voluminous skirts? Women carried cigarette cases and lighters and began to make a display of applying makeup in public, so lipsticks and powder compacts became part of every woman’s daily arsenal.

As the decades passed, handbags have grown in size, reaching the current outsize extreme shown by luxury houses like Balenciaga, Céline and Loewe. As the leading accessory of our times, they have even earned their own slot on Sotheby’s and Christies’ auction house calendars, where they are able to command bids of hundreds of thousands of pounds on occasion. This year, a Hermès Birkin broke records at $380,000.

Ironic then, that in certain milieus, the handbag has simultaneously been denoted to the more demeaning stature of ancient times where carrying such an accessory denotes inferior status. Today, the ability to be bag-free is a power move indicating that you either have a public relations person or personal assistant carrying it for you at a discreet distance or, for some people attending fashion shows, private views or dinners, keep a car and driver outside, enabling you to leave your bag and its contents in the backseat and sail around the event, unencumbered and unbothered by the hassle of cloakroom queue.

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