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A Man Looks Into Handbags

Bergdorf Goodman Voice

David Coggins enters unknown territory

6 2 2011

6 1 11


A woman and her handbag are inseparable and, to men, inscrutable and impenetrable. She carries her most elegant bag to the Met gala, her most rustic to the countryside, her most up-to-the-second to lunch with peers. Opting not to carry a bag on any given outing is a major decision, made after much deliberation. “Am I going to need my purse?” she asks, pondering all the possibilities of being seen sans eyeliner. The answer, despite time of deliberation, seems, inevitably, no. The bag comes along on the emergency dog walk and the mail run, if for no other reason than as a talismanic chaperone. Most men have no idea the implications of the handbag— its status, its desirability, its contents. They’re only interested when they occasionally want to throw something in there so they won’t have bulging pockets.

But women know. They recognize one of their own when she carries a custom Kelly bag (and they are aware of how much it costs in all its variations and vintages). They notice anybody carrying the season’s “it” bag before it’s in stores, or last season’s “it” bag after its “donate-by” date. They know. Of course they know. They’re women. The handbag is the provenance of the fair sex, and it’s one of the principal ways they communicate how they fit into the social world. It’s a symbol, a charm, maybe even a mojo. Do they carry a well-worn bag inherited from their genteel grandmother, a monogrammed Goyard that leaves no doubt who owns it, do they aggressively reject luxury and carry a thank-you canvas tote from NPR? We all know these types of women, but by their bags we know them better.

And that’s just the outside of the bag. What of its contents? Think of the tragic ferocity in a woman’s eye when she says “I just lost my purse. My whole life was in there.” Goodly gentlemen, when apprised of this situation, express your sincere condolences and then clear out. Do not point out in consolation that much of what was jammed in there seemed beyond useless: unwrapped gum, random receipts, small change in foreign currency. Do not try to calm her and offer to replace it. The connection is too intense. It was family. Give her space and time to grieve.

We’re all familiar with the sight of a woman searching her purse in vain for a mint or a useful piece of paper. A man, of course, knows exactly what’s in his bag and where it is. That’s why he carries it. It’s an exigency. On occasion he requires a camera, a book, and a flask, so he puts it all into a handsome and functional bag and sets forth with a feeling of purpose.

If the occasion requires a brief (or a change of briefs), he carries a briefcase. If he’s a Bond-like assassin, he carries a Swaine Adeney Brigg briefcase and adds a few hidden explosives, a fake passport, and some gold ducats. But that just underscores the point: Q dutifully explains to 007 what’s in there, and then we wait for the plot to come around for him to use everything inside it, which, inevitably, he does, much to the dismay of Dr. No.

The man never carries a bag in default mode. It’s a hassle; he only carries it if he must. He doesn’t keep a bag full of things he might need. His bag isn’t an ecosystem of objects, it’s merely a conveyance. It functions, hopefully elegantly, but it never defines the man himself.

A woman always remembers her first step into the handbag big leagues. When the writer Sloane Crosley received her first book advance, she did not invest it in a mutual fund but on a Givenchy Pumpkin bag, large and light blue. (She described this so authoritatively that I didn’t feel comfortable asking what a Pumpkin bag is.) She added: “The bag is very aware of the perils of its own bucket-ness and contains a pouch inside which I use to keep an endless supply of hair elastics and mints. It’s telling that these are the things to which I most want access in a bag crafted in the hobo genre.” That makes sense. But can I admit I had no idea the hobo genre exists, or that the house of Givenchy might operate within it.

When Alain Ducasse opened in New York a few years ago, the staff would draw up stools next to the table for the ladies’ purses. There was something pedestal-like in this practice, as if finally the bag was seen as the sculpture it is. It remains interesting, however, to note where women place their bags; some casually fling their purse on the floor while others scan the room for a suitable surface to set it on.

If some women clearly cop to the bag as attention attracter, others are deliberately understated in its display. One particularly discreet friend says, “When I notice bags, I usually notice them for something I don’t like, like a huge logo, which seems like a cheap way of making yourself look expensive.” Ouch. Of course she wouldn’t turn down the ultimately recognizable Birkin bag. Many of the women I spoke to implied that they were beyond “it” bags, thus above the fray, but when asked if they still noticed them on others, they replied instantly, “Of course.” You might as well ask a man if he notices a friend pulling up in an Aston Martin.

A woman’s bag isn’t a burden to bear, and it’s far more than an accessory. It’s a social totem, a stand-in for her subconscious, an arcanum of casual mysteries. A savvy woman recognizes the implications of her bag, and she’s tolerant of its unruly contents in a way that’s surprising, but in the end, endearing. Her bag of choice is her badge to stylishly negotiate her way in the world. A man must understand the importance of her bag, and ultimately, if he loves a woman, he’ll love her bag. BG

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