Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Handbags: What's in em?

Jean-Claude Kaufmann is one of France's leading sociologists. His research into women's handbags is just out in a book, Le Sac un Petit Monde d'Amour ("The Bag, a Small World of Affection"), and, with photographer Pierre Klein, there is also a photo exhibition of the contents of 50 handbags, Elles Vident Leur Sac (a saying which means "to get it off one's chest"). Kaufmann points out that the more that "women have become independent, the more they have taken their bag with them every day".

Adam Sage of the Times wrote an article in April about handbag contents (original article link below). Sage said that Kaufmann had found that a handbag is an "insurance policy against the risks of daily life". How an insurance policy? Well, we women tend to carry around a lot of things just in case we need them.

Personally, I never used to use a handbag. I used to carry my wallet and my keys, with my sunglasses on my head. Three things; easy peasy. But then I added a fourth thing to the mix; that of a cellphone. Suddenly I was leaving one of my things behind wherever I went, getting to the car and finding I had left my keys behind; getting a call at home to find I had left my cellphone at a shop...

So to avoid constantly losing things, I succumbed to a small bag. And over time I added things to it; plasters, loyalty cards, neurofen, two pens (just in case!), business cards, rolled up shopping bags, nail scissors (reminder to self, do NOT leave these in when at the airport again), hand cream, tiny sewing kit and more. No makeup though; I don't do war-paint.

After shoulder injury, I migrated to a leather backpack. So I have only one 'handbag', and it isn't one.

Sage quoted Kaufmann. "The just-in-case tells us a lot about today's society [...] We don't face more risks than people did in the past but we can't stand the idea of being unprepared for risk."

An insurance policy. That is what my backpack is. It contains all the things that I MAY need when I am out and about. Probably 95% of the time, I would be able to get away with not having most of it with me. But when I don't take it, my husband will give me his wallet to look after, and be horrified that I don't have my bag with me, for his convenience. Or I will need that plaster for someone, or tissues, or another pen, or some paper, or a business card, or my emergency credit card (yes, I have an 'emergency' one - and, no, it is not because my credit is maxed out! It is another form of insurance).

Sage in his article talked about women constantly being unable to find their keys in their bags. My bag isn't big, but I too misplace my keys in its black depths. I think it says more about who designs bags... and I must remember to buy another dog-clip to snap my keys onto the inside of mine (I recycled it in another just in case situation).

Martine Laronche in her Guardian article (see below) talked about the seriousness of loss or theft. She quoted Kaufmann "The owner feel as though she has lost part of herself. The handbag is a key piece in the day-to-day construction of identity." The exhibition photographer, Klein, feels that women have their identity in their handbags, where the more affluent amongst us get away from practicality and into image construction. Do you have a Louis Vuitton bag? Miu Miu? ChloƩ? Jill Sander? Or do you recreate yourself depending on what day it is?

"It's a female attribute, an expression of style," Klein says. "A woman's handbag is a bit like a man's car: it corresponds to the image they wish to project." Perhaps. I am the unbranded bag that is kept until the cobbler's repairs can no longer keep it together; the well-loved muddy and dented family retainer, chuffing along on three cylinders.

However, Kaufmann and Klein feel that we women try to see the future in what we carry with us; shopping lists, first aid items, things to keep the family entertained and organised. Some of us - though not me - appear to carry the past; mementoes, photographs, icons and artefacts.

Kaufmann was surprised by how many 'useless' things that the women in his study carried, as physical icons of their past. As Sage said, there were "teddy bears, dolls, pebbles, champagne corks, an old handkerchief (the souvenir of a discarded lover), letters of reconciliation [, ...]photographs of loved ones".

Ah, but not in mine. Practicality rules. But I must remember to get a new dog-clip :-)


  • Sage, Adam (4 April 2011). What the contents of your handbag says about you. UK: The Times. Retrieved 8 May 2011 from http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article2970245.ece
  • Laronche, Martine (5 April 2011). The secret life of handbags. UK: The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May 2011 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/apr/05/secret-handbags-pierre-klien-laronche


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