Book defines the personality of purses

Sunday, November 17, 2002

NEW YORK -- There are so many choices standing between a woman and her perfect handbag that she often buys everything in her way.

"They're all so tempting," gushes Anna Johnson. "There are fewer rules in fashion now, so it's an excuse to have more bags."

A good bag acts as an extension of the body, she reasons; it says so much about a person in such a small space.

Johnson is the author of "Handbags: Power of the Purse" (Workman), a book that attempts to describe "why a little piece of fabric or a little pouch of leather with a strap on it is so powerful."

She says that a purse often indicates a woman's higher aspirations. If she wants to look organized, she might choose a unisex-style briefcase; if she wants to look like a woman so wealthy she doesn't care about status symbols, she might choose a canvas tote that would fit right in on a yacht.

"Every woman wants a bag you can wear to work and that makes you look like you make $30,000 more than you do," Johnson adds.

But, she says, it's not the cost of the bag that matters, it's the message.

"My bag says I'm not really ready for a serious status bag yet. I'm not ready to be that grown up."

Other purses with personality, according to Johnson, include:

Elegant icons, such as a Birkin or Kelly from Hermes, the Fendi Baguette or almost anything from Chanel, carry the message, "I'm worth it."

"There's a great dignity in carrying a bag with great lineage," she adds.

A "bag of the moment," which is anything there is a waiting list for, means the owner takes fashion seriously.

A tote bag signifies an unpretentious American style. It is classy with a touch of sportiness.

Decorated purses embellished with fringe, beads and the like, are usually carried by women who indulge in their femininity. "She's laughing at her responsibilities," Johnson says.

Sporty styles, including a Kate Spade shopper or a Bonnie Cashin "grab-it-and-go" shoulder sling, are "suggestive fashion," carried by a woman who wants to look as if she can do it all.

Most women want a purse that is a combination of the above, says Johnson. But she predicts a new wave of handbag designers will come from a world far away from fashion: She expects industrial designers to get in on the act.

It eventually will dawn on someone that women will pay a very high price for an attractive, functional, long-lasting bag that is also comfortable to carry but big enough to hold sunscreen and bottled water, Johnson says. That someone is unlikely to come from a fashion background where practicality is at best an afterthought, she notes.

Valerie Steele, chief curator of The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, admits that she carries multiple purses on a given day.

She says she thinks of her tote as "the mother ship," and inside she tucks many other smaller bags.

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