A woman's woman's handbag can be the most essential, dependable, cluttered, dramatic, sensual element in her life.
She may rely upon it more than she does upon her sitter or her husband. It can hold more secrets than her most faithful friend.
Its loss might be felt more keenly than the loss of a hairdresser, yet a new handbag can feel like a new love: the promise of a fresh start and the hope for perfection.
Her handbag can be as whimsical as beads, fur and straw flowers or as severe as black patent leather. It might be large enough to carry a laptop, a Palm Pilot and workout clothes, or too small to hold more than a lipstick and a credit card.
In the end, husbands and lovers may disappoint or depart. Children grow up and away. Friends prove fickle. Styles change. The moon waxes and wanes.
But the handbag is forever.
"I have my handbag with me every minute," says Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of "Handbags: A Lexicon of Style." (Rizzoli Publications, 1999)
"My whole life is in there."
Women we adore carry a bag we covet, and they are linked forever in our imaginations: Coco Chanel's quilted bag with chain strap, Grace Kelly's Hermes bag, Sophia Loren's Ferragamo bag, Princess Diana's Lady Dior, the Jackie bag from Gucci, and Queen Elizabeth II's practical Launer bags (one for every ensemble).
During her tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher was so often photographed with her purse -- she called it her "constant companion" -- that one of them has been preserved in a museum in Cambridge.
More lasting, however, may be the place that purse holds in the lexicon of political language. Thanks to Thatcher, the Oxford English Dictionary now defines the verb "to handbag" to mean "to attack verbally, to bully."
From a little girl's white vinyl First Communion snap-purse to grandma's chain-mail evening bag. From the backpack to the diaper bag. From the fanny pack to the briefcase. From Louis Vuitton to Kate Spade, a woman's handbag is a hybrid of utility and fashion, a dumping place for the detritus of all her roles, the repository of all her responsibilities. Her handbag is the thing she fingers and handles and slings over her shoulder. The thing she would be lost without.
A woman's purse says much about her, but hides more: The bills she keeps forgetting to pay; the pills she must take every day; the tube of concealer that disguises her age, the program from a ballet recital she can't bring herself to discard.
"Every decade of a woman's life, she carries a handbag for a different reason," says Irenka Jakubiak, editor in chief of Accessories magazine.
"Handbags are more than a piece of equipment for a woman," says Steele. "They play a number of psychological as well as practical roles. And that's because women are playing so many roles and the handbag is the facilitator. She is beautiful and feminine, successful, in shape. She has a family and an intellectual life."
Handbags are where a woman's fantasy life meets her real life. She might think of herself as the golden "It" girl with the latest Fendi Baguette under her arm. In her imagination, it contains no more than a passport and a toothbrush. But her life requires that a woman also carry a washable microfiber bucket tote, filled with everything she'd need if she were trapped in an elevator for the weekend with her toddler.
"Women have become like turtles: carrying our homes on our backs," says Michele Marini Pittenger, vice president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America.
The answer is to buy both the mother-ship tote and the dainty dinghy fashion bag -- plus everything in between. And that's what women are doing.
Sales shoot up
Handbag sales have never been hotter. According to the NPD Group, a marketing information company based in Port Washington, N.Y., handbag sales reached half a billion dollars last fall and the sales of whimsical evening bags jumped almost 40 percent.
Even presidential paramour Monica Lewinsky has found her place in purses. She now markets the knitting bag styles she stitched up for friends while she waited for Ken Starr to pounce.
What began a century ago as an optional accessory for carrying calling cards or a hanky has become the new status symbol. Fashion houses like Gucci, Fendi and Prada are hiring young designers to spruce up their accessory lines because they can make half of their money from those sales: While a $3,000 suit might be out of reach for most women, there appears to be healthy demand for a $500 to $900 handbag.
Few designer handbags cost less than Kate Spade's trademark boxy tote at $150, and some can cost tens of thousands.
There is a blazing passion for purses right now, and it can be traced to the successful marketing of the idea that a woman should have a wardrobe of handbags instead of "one good bag." But Fendi, which introduced the Baguette in 1997, lit the match with its Beanie Baby approach.
Fendi hooked women with an endless array of styles, and each one was retired after limited availability. The Baguettes (named after the French bread because of its shape, but also because the short handle kept it tucked up under the arm) had women craving a new one every couple of months, despite price tags ranging from $450 to $12,000. Now there is almost a Fendi backlash.
"Fendi bags already feel so last year," said Suzi Cordish, a Baltimore arts champion and style icon. She has moved on to Lambertson Truex, the hot new handbag-only designers on the scene, and JP Tod. "My hope is that I am not buying something that will look dated in three months."
To fan the acquisitive desires of women like Cordish, who is said to have more handbags than she is willing to count, designers have unleashed their imaginations.
"Prada and Gucci and Fendi brought handbags back into focus with these incredible shapes and styles, and it woke up the handbag market," says Jakubiak. "Women are buying outfits around handbags. They used to do that with shoes."
Handbags are showing animal skins, real and faux, that would test the range of a big-game hunter: ostrich, pinto pony, giraffe, zebra, croc and mock croc, and snake.
Leathers are embossed, punched and dyed the colors of a Crayola box of 64. The shapes recall everything from French bread (the Baguette has a baby sister, the Croissant) to bowling bags and saddlebags.
Straw flowers are back. So is paisley, as are the colors aqua and tangerine. Beads and feathers, exiled since the '60s, have returned triumphant.
Even Coach, the guardian of tradition with its understated leather shoulder bags, has moved into shiny leathers, fabrics and exotic skins.
Says Steele: "You start with the Kate Spade preppy bag, the Dior fabulous evening bag and the Prada sports bag. And everything in between.
"It is desire, not necessity."
Karen Bokram, editor of Baltimore-based Girls' Life magazine and the new chair of Maryland Art Place, has no such desire, and she doesn't see the necessity, either.
"Having a purse is like having a bad date. You can never leave it there even if you want to," says Bokram, who prefers big pockets. "And you end up putting more in it than you really need. Let's face it, a purse is baggage.
"Besides, how much can you pay for a handbag before it is a Third World country?" she asks.
Men were first
Though men were the first to carry something that might be called a purse -- Greeks had them and so did the Crusaders -- purses became so identified with women that Shakespeare used the word to describe a woman's most private place.
Though men today don't seem averse to carrying a masculine shoulder tote, there is no doubt that purses are a sex-linked accessory.
"I love the accouterment of being a woman," says Cordish, who changes handbags every day. "I love the stuff."
Cordish has a collection of purses that dates to the Villager model with the wooden handle and the three-button cloth body. But collecting vintage purses and one-of-a-kind designs has become the latest divertissement among the Ladies Who Lunch. So much so that Sotheby's in New York held its first exclusive handbag auction in 1998.
Some women are more sanguine in the matter of their handbags.
"My handbag has to be a diaper bag and a school bag, too," says Baltimore's first lady, Katie O'Malley. "I take one, it's black cloth, and it has all the necessities: a diaper in case I have to pick up the baby, a cell phone, the bills I have to pay."
O'Malley, a prosecutor and the mother of three young children, is too busy to be anything but practical about her purse: "When I go somewhere for the city, I just lock it in the trunk. Then I don't have to worry if I put it somewhere, or if it doesn't match."
But she can also yield to sentiment on the subject. "Handbags are such a personal thing. I like looking through my old pocketbooks. I find notes and ticket stubs and lipsticks. Things that remind me of what I did a couple of years ago."
In the end, each woman must answer these questions for herself: Am I a sensible tote or a sensual clutch? Does my purse serve me, or does it adorn me?
"Why not have both?" answers Valerie Steele.