Where personality is in the bag

The utilitarian sack has grown into a personal statement

Don't even ask the price. For a true fashionista such handbags as the Fendi Baguette - $465 to $6,000 - or a camouflage-print Dior Saddlebag - $855 - are not simply places to stash an appointment book. They're as critical to the well-dressed look as the latest shoes.

So popular have handbags become, that fashion designers feel compelled to place their stamp - often literally - on the accessory.

This summer, the French company Louis Vuitton produced a graffiti bag that sent New York socialites over the edge: Despite its $265 to $1,000 price tag, the bag sold out in just two months, and waiting lists proliferate worldwide.

What's the fuss about? Stephen Sprouse, a famous underground New York artist, redesigned Vuitton's famous1896 French monogram-canvas bag so it now looks more like a spray-painted subway wall than something you'd carry to a dinner party.

The hottest bags for summer and fall come in strong geometric shapes, some with woven or optical details, such as bamboo or golden-style link handles.

From the trendy Parisian neighborhood of Le Marais to the catwalks of Milan and London's Sloane Street, handbags not only tote a woman's daily needs, but they reflect what is happening in society.

Fashion icons such as Grace Kelly and Diana, Princess of Wales, were immortalized with handbags that were named after them. Even Margaret Thatcher's black leather Ferragamo purse - a symbol of her conservative philosophy - was sold for $150,000 in an Internet auction last year. And while New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates Jacqueline Kennedy's White House years, fashion watchers go crazy about "Sex and the City" heroine Sarah Jessica Parker's fancy handbags and shoes.

In fact, accessories have gradually - and paradoxically - become "must-have" fashion essentials. "A lot of people are looking to accessories to give them that fashion excitement rather than looking to clothes for that," says Valerie Steele, acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of "Handbags: A Lexicon of Style."

"In terms of style, clothing has become increasingly minimal and uniform for most women," says Ms. Steele. "So they have fun wearing a playful pair of shoes or a high-fashion handbag." In addition, it's cheaper to purchase a fancy brooch or purse rather than a fashionable suit.

"Accessories make an outfit more sophisticated," says Valerie Auto, a Parisian lawyer who buys at least 10 handbags a year.

"Carrying a handbag makes me feel more feminine," says Eliza Bird, a budget-conscious, self-described "fashion follower."

Yet, before becoming one of today's most coveted fashion accessories, handbags evolved, along with women's social status through centuries. At the turn of the past century, for instance, purses weren't necessary because many women had accounts, and wouldn't need to carry money.

Then, as women went out and traveled more, they carried small bags that gradually became daily companions. "These bags would be with them, with money and jewelry inside, when they might have their suitcases [or] trunks carried onto a train," says Steele. "Then, their small bag turned into more of a handbag. As women began to work in the early 20th century, obviously they did start to carry bags for small things, like money, keys, wallet, and more identification."

Later, the list of basics grew - from organizer to cellphone, Palm Pilot, hand cream, contact-lens supplies, or breath mints. Women also found men asking them to carry wallets and other gear for them.

Steele speaks of handbags as "a sort of an identity kit, that has everything women need in it." Whatever purse, tote, or shoulder bag women carry, it becomes part of their personality.

"Handbags are a kind of mirror of people's lives," says Steele. And also their preoccupations: some carry hair clips, tweezers, mini flashlights, pepper spray, or candy bars.

Whether it holds a cellphone or an unusual item such as a Swiss Army knife, handbags make women feel secure. "When I carry one, I feel like a Girl Scout. I'm prepared for anything," says one respondent to an informal survey.

"It weighs me down, but I would be lost without it," says another of those polled. Yet, many defy the tyranny of fashion and believe that a handbag should be primarily "functional" rather than trendy. In fact, many working women are fed up with fashiony little purses, too small for real life.

These women will be happy to know that, at least for summer, the classic tote is back in style. It has resurfaced in a variety of refreshing prints, from Kate Spade flowers to Jane Fox shell designs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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