The Handbag

Finding the right one can be as complicated as keeping track of what's inside.


in Archive


One of my seasonal rites is shopping for a new handbag.1 It’s a mystery to me why I have to do this. You’d think a bag would outlast a season.2 But these things get a lot of wear and tear. Pen marks appear on the surface; unidentifiable lint accumulates at the bottom; once-sturdy straps fray and then suddenly snap, scattering loose change, Kleenex, tampons, and costly pills for allergy and anxiety in all directions.

Even the best handbags don’t wear well. I inherited two Coach bags from my mother. Coach bags are supposed to be indestructible, and, it’s true, they don’t fall apart — they just look increasingly awful. One of the bags my mother left me was originally off-white but, with time, turned a sickly beige. One day, I realized it had taken on the coloration and texture of human skin. The other bag was black and very heavy — perfect for a funeral but not much else. Also, the little leather piece surrounding the buckle had started to curl like a potato chip. When I finally took both bags to the consignment shop they were turned down flat. I then donated them to a thrift shop where they continue to hang sadly on a hook, unwanted at $3 each.

The very idea of my needing a handbag is puzzling. How is it that men, of whom I am the equal in all other respects, seem to be well served by their back pockets or (if they’re European) sleek little manpurses? Why can’t I manage as well? All I have to carry is lipstick, eyeliner, pressed powder, reading glasses, sunglasses, small perfume spray, sunscreen, Kleenex, small brush, tic tacs, chocolate bar, small sewing kit, liquid soap, wash-n-drys, address book, key chain (with nine keys, three of which I have no idea what they open), and a wallet (containing charge cards, check book, pictures of children, membership cards, and cards that are stamped for one cup of coffee at a shop I’ll never visit again). When my children were small, I also carried crayons and coloring books, fruit snacks, and a change of underpants.

Every once and awhile I go into minimalist mode and try to streamline the contents of my handbag. No sooner do I do this, however, than I discover myself in desperate need of the liquid soap or knee highs that I jettisoned.

If one thinks anthropologically, handbags may be a vestigial expression of women’s biological desire to nest. We need to feel that all the necessities of life are immediately within reach — and these necessities have increased in number as civilization has grown more complex. By the same token, the handbag may only be a shrewd invention on the part of patriarchy to keep women enslaved. The dead white male who invented it knew that it was an accessory that we wouldn’t be able to resist.

Be that as it may, I admit to having a fetishistic love of handbags that would probably require years of psychoanalysis to be rid of. But given that I know a lot on the subject, I might as well share my knowledge with anyone interested:

1) A handbag shouldn’t be too big. Most people, barring the Amazonian supermodel, look ridiculous with very large handbags. Even a bag of the best variety, if too large, will make you look like a bag lady seeking a street corner in which to curl up for the night.

2) It shouldn’t be too small. There’s nothing more déclassé than a purse that’s been overstuffed. It’s like a tight dress that shows all the bulges.

3) It shouldn’t be too heavy. Given the cargo, one doesn’t want to turn the thing into a barbell or hasten the development of a dowager’s hump.

4) It shouldn’t be too light. Those light-weight knitted bags, when filled with the necessary items, will make you look like Santa with his bag of toys.

5) It should be reasonably stylish. A dowdy handbag, like a bad haircut, can add 10 years to your age.

6) It shouldn’t be too trendy. In my 20s I made the mistake of buying bags that were “cute” — i.e. for a fleeting moment in time they looked cool, only to recede into looking stupid a week or two later. Anything made out of blue jean material or with words written in French should be avoided.

7) It shouldn’t be too expensive. An expensive bag is fine if you’re going to remain faithful to it for years. But most women are like me — they crave change. Since it’s better to be fickle about handbags than husbands, I recommend confining yourself to Marshall’s and the reduced bin at Loehmann’s.

8) It shouldn’t be too cheap. The faux-leather bag may look good on the rack, but the pungent plastic odor and stubborn refusal to wear out will get on your nerves.

9) It should have at least two compartments, for cell phone and reading glasses. This is a stipulation that wouldn’t have occurred to me a decade ago, when I didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t need reading glasses. Compartments are also the kind of simple innovations, like cup-holders in cars, that weren’t necessary until someone thought them up. A few weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I saw an infomercial for a pocketbook insert with compartments for everything you might need. The idea was a good one, but the actual item (which the infomercial promised would fit into a handbag of any size) seemed dubious. If readers have tried this insert and can vouch for it, please e-mail me.

One thing I’ve learned in my long career of shopping for handbags is never to buy one unless I’ve tested it by transferring the contents of my existing purse into the projected one. I do this even if I have to do it in the middle of the store where all can see. As embarrassing as it may seem, it is necessary. Be assured that the procedure will draw a great deal of sympathy from other shoppers who will offer their opinion: “not big enough,” “bad color,” “looks lumpy,” etc. Take their advice. Or don’t. You’ll need to buy another bag in a few months anyway.

1I have a fondness for the term “pocketbook,” in its evocation of portable reading-matter, but the word seems to have gone out of favor (and tends to be used only for the little black purses with stiff handles that my grandmother used to carry).
2My seasonal pilgrimage is not apparently unique. A recent survey states that the average American woman buys at least four handbags a year. The “at least” is intriguing, since it suggests legions of women who can’t resist a fifth or sixth handbag — not to mention the fashionistas who buy one for every outfit. • 17 October 2007




Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.