Pocketbook Anthropology 101

by Amy Kingsley

The handbag is anunlikely object of academic attention. It’s young compared to otheraccessories like jewelry and hats, emerging in the late 18th centurywhen dress designers abandoned big, bustly skirts for simple shiftsmodeled on Greek fashion. The new dresses couldn’t accommodatethe deep pockets women were used to. So designers, possiblyanticipating the future windfall, introduced the pocketbook. Exceptthat wasn’t what it was called. At least not at first. The earliestbeaded purses swinging from the ends of thin chains were called"reticules." The pocketbook’s ascent to the top of the culturalladder has been swift. The makers of the Sex and the City movie wrappedan entire feature around high-end handbags and matching shoes. Whichmay make this the perfect time for Wake Forest University’s Museum ofAnthropology to unveil its survey of purses, Pocketbook Anthropology.Fans of the HBO series-turned-movie who need to understand the culturalforces that turned Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda into cravenlabel whores will want to take a spin through the museum’s glass cases. Thepurses are confined to the center of the small museum, but there aremore than 50 of them. The curatorial emphasis here is on quirky styles’­- like the purse that incorporates a working clock or another shapedlike a Chinese takeout container. But the exhibition’s thesis isthat purses have displaced jewelry as womankind’s ultimate statussymbol. In the last 50 years, fashion houses have pumped out seasonalbaggage alongside their catwalk collections. The museum has someof these. Early Chanel purses with the house’s iconic interlocking C’s.A Kate Spade clutch trimmed in fuzzy gray turf. A Christian Dior totein quilted leather. Ferragamo. Agostino. Vuitton. Then there arethe knockoffs. The fever for high-end handbags has spawned amulti-million dollar market in counterfeits. Manufacturers in China,India, Mexico and the United States produce bags that range from weakrip offs to those that are barely distinguishable from the original.You can find them on hundreds of internet sites and in Canal Streetstorefronts. The bulk of the Museum of Anthropology exhibit isdevoted to more whimsical handbags ‘­- those inspired by pop and folkcultures. There were purses shaped like watering cans and straw housesfrom Japan, where tastes run wacky. If designer purses withshiny clasps reveal something about the ambition of its owner, pursesmade from duct tape or shaped like poodles say something entirelydifferent. In that vein, there are clutches with limited practicalvalue made out of coconuts or in the shape of the Titanic. Abovethat purse shaped like a Chinese takeout container hangs a bag trimmedin fringe and decals, a hobo bag since appropriated by the likes ofMary Kate Olsen and bowdlerized by high fashion houses. Its tag saysthe owner carried the bag to a long child-custody trial, using it toshield her body from the proceedings. In that case, the pursebecomes more than a repository for your personal belongings. Itbecomes, in essence, a place to store your uncertainties, weaknessesand fears. If this were an archaeological exhibit, there mightbe more space devoted to excavating the contents of ladies purses,which arguably reveal more about women and their times than theexteriors do. There are women with purses as neat, ordered and empty astheir lives, and others whose bags explode with receipts, notes andbusiness cards. Still there are some fascinating relics ondisplay, including a puckered purse made of blue python skin and analligator-skin clutch with the animal’s webbed feet still attached. Adelicate fan purse didn’t come from a high-end design house, it wasdesigned by Rachell Saez-Mills. A program in Charleston, SCempowers women to do more than drop a bundle on designer leather. TheCenter for Women holds an annual fundraiser in which they ask prominentwomen to design handbags. The proceeds benefit the group. The purses are individually designed, crafted and auctioned. You know what that means: You can’t find them on Canal Street.