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Pocketbook Anthropology 101

by Amy Kingsley

The handbag is an unlikely object of academic attention. It’s young compared to other accessories like jewelry and hats, emerging in the late 18th century when dress designers abandoned big, bustly skirts for simple shifts modeled on Greek fashion.

The new dresses couldn’t accommodate the deep pockets women were used to. So designers, possibly anticipating the future windfall, introduced the pocketbook.

Except that wasn’t what it was called. At least not at first. The earliest beaded purses swinging from the ends of thin chains were called “reticules.”

The pocketbook’s ascent to the top of the cultural ladder has been swift. The makers of the Sex and the City movie wrapped an entire feature around high-end handbags and matching shoes.

Which may make this the perfect time for Wake Forest University’s Museum of Anthropology to unveil its survey of purses, Pocketbook Anthropology. Fans of the HBO series-turned-movie who need to understand the cultural forces that turned Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda into craven label whores will want to take a spin through the museum’s glass cases.

The purses are confined to the center of the small museum, but there are more than 50 of them. The curatorial emphasis here is on quirky styles ­- like the purse that incorporates a working clock or another shaped like a Chinese takeout container.

But the exhibition’s thesis is that purses have displaced jewelry as womankind’s ultimate status symbol. In the last 50 years, fashion houses have pumped out seasonal baggage alongside their catwalk collections.

The museum has some of these. Early Chanel purses with the house’s iconic interlocking C’s. A Kate Spade clutch trimmed in fuzzy gray turf. A Christian Dior tote in quilted leather. Ferragamo. Agostino. Vuitton.

Then there are the knockoffs. The fever for high-end handbags has spawned a multi-million dollar market in counterfeits. Manufacturers in China, India, Mexico and the United States produce bags that range from weak rip offs to those that are barely distinguishable from the original. You can find them on hundreds of internet sites and in Canal Street storefronts.

The bulk of the Museum of Anthropology exhibit is devoted to more whimsical handbags ­- those inspired by pop and folk cultures. There were purses shaped like watering cans and straw houses from Japan, where tastes run wacky.

If designer purses with shiny clasps reveal something about the ambition of its owner, purses made from duct tape or shaped like poodles say something entirely different. In that vein, there are clutches with limited practical value made out of coconuts or in the shape of the Titanic.

Above that purse shaped like a Chinese takeout container hangs a bag trimmed in fringe and decals, a hobo bag since appropriated by the likes of Mary Kate Olsen and bowdlerized by high fashion houses. Its tag says the owner carried the bag to a long child-custody trial, using it to shield her body from the proceedings.

In that case, the purse becomes more than a repository for your personal belongings. It becomes, in essence, a place to store your uncertainties, weaknesses and fears.

If this were an archaeological exhibit, there might be more space devoted to excavating the contents of ladies purses, which arguably reveal more about women and their times than the exteriors do. There are women with purses as neat, ordered and empty as their lives, and others whose bags explode with receipts, notes and business cards.

Still there are some fascinating relics on display, including a puckered purse made of blue python skin and an alligator-skin clutch with the animal’s webbed feet still attached. A delicate fan purse didn’t come from a high-end design house, it was designed by Rachell Saez-Mills.

A program in Charleston, SC empowers women to do more than drop a bundle on designer leather. The Center for Women holds an annual fundraiser in which they ask prominent women 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.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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