The Genteel
February 24, 2021


What's in your bag? (Source: Flickr, "What's in your bag [but not your camera bag]")

In the Strategy of Desire, Ernest Dichter wrote, "the objects which surround us serve as a kind of mirror that reflects our own image". Dichter's sentiments suggest that the objects people engage with and consume allow one to construct their own identity and, at the same time, gain insight into the personalities of others. Such is the case with the handbag. With the rise of fashion blogs and magazine articles focusing on the bag and its contents, the handbag can be viewed as central to the construction and communication of identity.

With the rise of consumer culture, commodity-based forms of defining one's identity have become the media through which we create ourselves and understand other people.

A peak into the history of the bag reveals its importance as a sign of one's social status, gender, class position and place in society, while contemporary interest on the bag signifies its continued importance in modern society.  The "bag" has a long history and archeological evidence suggests that even in the most primitive of ancient societies, people have transported items of personal use in androgynous cloth pouches. Depictions of men carrying bags hanging from their waists in Ancient Egypt survive to this day and designate the importance of these objects. These predecessors of purses had significant symbolic meanings attached to them. Depending on their size and embellishment, bags connoted the status, wealth and social standing of its wearers. Merchants, healers, scholars etc. could be identified based on what they carried within their satchels. Mythology, as well as traditional rituals in ancient cultures further shed light on the importance of bags and their contents. In Rome, as well as other ancient civilizations, the bag was associated with the womb and small pouches filled with coins were given to newly wed couples to connote fertility. The Roman Goddess Uberitas, for example, is often depicted as holding a pouch, which symbolizes the personification of fruitfulness and productiveness.

With the expansion of the railway network and the increased participation of middle and upper class women in travel and leisure activities, bags became considerably important. With the rise of women's sexual as well as sartorial power, and the shift of women's place from the domestic sphere to the labour market, the handbag has, in Farid Chenoune's words, become the "toolbox of femininity" at once revealing and concealing an intimate part of the body's silhouette. In the twentieth century, the birth of the "purse" indicated a shift in the increased meaning of this object. The size, shape, style and material of these objects have been largely shaped and guided by the social conditions of society. In the 1920's, for example, the streamlined shapes reflected the modernity of art deco while specialized pockets for lipsticks, powders and other cosmetics symbolized a different kind of feminine identity, one that started to evolve outside of the domestic sphere. In the 1950's, handbags represented an aesthetic value as opposed to a utilitarian function and indicated a step away from the grave war era. The 60's and 70's were decades where handbags symbolized the rebellious anti-fashion sentiments of subcultures, such as the hippies and the punks. The designs and contents of both indicated group membership as well as social and political attachment. The brassy designs of handbags in the 1980's reflected the brashness of the decade and the decadence of conspicuous consumption. It's not surprising that this was also the decade in which the designer label became a prevalent feature. Cox maintains that, "in the first decade of the 21st century and on, handbags, as markers of mobility, have never been more important or more enormous as they must accommodate all the paraphernalia a modern woman needs".

Identity is a complex construct, one that is produced and shaped by experiences as well as bodily, representational and cultural factors. That being said, items of fashion can act as tools for communicating and aiding in the production of the self. The purse does this in two different ways. First, the bag as an object in itself, indicates and communicates various messages about its wearer; and second, as a container of material things, the handbag speaks volumes about the identity of its owner. In the past, identity was largely constructed apart from consumer goods, usually through community involvement, familial relations, religious affiliation and the workplace. However, with the rise of consumer culture, commodity-based forms of defining one's identity have become the media through which we create ourselves and understand other people.

In the last year or so, Marie Claire magazine has begun to devote the last page of their publication to a feature entitled "In The Bag". In The Bag is meant to showcase the contents of the bags of various celebrities in order to provide its readers with a better understanding of who these people "really" are. In a write-up for the segment, Marie Claire boasts to have "stumbled upon a major trend", especially since the column receives "major attention and feedback". This is not surprising, especially since Cox claims that "there is always a frisson of fear and delight when one ventures forth a trembling hand to enter the dark recess of someone else's bag". Why? Because bags can say a lot about us, getting a glimpse into the intimate recess of a stranger's bag feels like an invasion of privacy. With Marie Claire's column, the reader is able to get a glimpse at what certain celebrities have in their purses and, in turn, get a sense of that person's personality. For example, Mary J. Blige's bag, which contains among other things, a Louis Vuitton wallet and a Blackberry Bold, say a lot about her economic position and class status. Her choice of literature signifies her spiritual leanings. Christiane Amanpour's bag, on the other hand, contains a passport, photo album and a political novel, all of which indicate her lifestyle, familial position and political affiliation. 

Marie Claire, In The Bag

Marie Claire's use of celebrities is in contrast to the everyday people represented in both Flickr's "What's In Your Bag [but NOT camera bag]" group and Travis' Persona Project, where the observer knows nothing about the participants.  Flickr's "What's In Your Bag" group is a photo initiative whose sole purpose is to portray bag contents of regular people. To date, the group has 20,551 international members and over 11,237 photographs have been uploaded.  The owners of the bags are never shown. The items on display also reflect a number of things about its owners, such as the gender, hobbies, lifestyle and nationality. The disembodied objects are intended to enable the site's visitors to construct at least some semblance of the participants' identities.

Similarly, Jason Travis' Persona Project is a photography expose that exhibits bags and their contents. No narrative is provided about bag owners nor are any explanations included regarding their contents. The audience is expected to figure out the identity of the participant solely through the objects on display. For example, one photograph includes various green products, which connote a strong affiliation with environmental issues, while another includes a law handbook, which points to his/her career and education.  In each case, it is the material objects that allow the audience to determine the identity of the participant.

As Dichter claims, "the power of various objects to bring out into the open new aspects of personality of modern man is great, the more intimate knowledge of as many different types of products a man has the richer his life." The history of the bag and all three contemporary examples point to the fact that bags are meaningful material objects, which allow us to gain insight into the identity and personality of others. This phenomenon also suggests that material goods have gained an increasing and inescapable power in our lives and have the ability to not only communicate but also contribute to the construction of the self. In this sense, bags and the items that reside within them enable us a glimpse into what Dichter termed, "the soul of man". 



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