Before the days of Instagram influencers and online shopping, and back when I was still wearing nineties Disney leggings that had been picked out for me, my mother carried a nondescript brown handbag wherever we went.
I cannot fully remember what it looked like. I only remember that it felt like comfort. It was a cavernous, Mary Poppins-worthy wonder and despite appearing compact, it held stamps for post office errands, a mini first aid kit, candy to placate me during long car rides in our family Chrysler, and a diverse portfolio of coupons for supermarket jaunts. The bag suited my mother in every way—it was sensible, wholly unselfconscious, and equipped to patch me up when I fell on the playground.
Until we moved to an affluent neighborhood before I started middle school, that utilitarian brown handbag formed my entire impression of what a handbag was, and what a handbag should be.
Until we moved to an affluent neighborhood before I started middle school, that utilitarian brown handbag formed my entire impression of what a handbag was, and what a handbag should be. Slightly creased Band-Aids? Mom had them. Advil in Ziplocs? That too. All in the zippered recesses of a slouchy brown compartment on two floppy, shoulder-carry handles. It had no logos—I think—but neither did anything else my family wore.
I haven’t heard a single adult reminisce positively about sixth grade, especially not women who were instantaneously, as pre-teen girls, pressured for the first time to maintain good appearances in addition to good grades. Middle school in consumerist suburbia is weird that way. Suddenly, while getting acclimated to a bell-regulated schedule and to science labs, I was also learning new names like American Eagle and Juicy Couture. And, above all, a name that made the others sound ordinary: Louis Vuitton.
I first saw the brand name splashed across a two-page advertising spread in a fashion magazine that a friend brought to school. This friend was interested in all things popular and cool, and her mom let her wear eyeliner at age twelve, so I trusted her without reservation when she said the French name like LOO-iss VWEH-tun. I followed her pronunciation until corrected by a glamorous classmate who came to school one day with a brand-new Louis Vuitton Murakami pochette that, until then, I had only seen in photos. I loved it at once.
It was a slim, oblong, shoulder-carried purse, small enough to tuck under the arm or dangle insouciantly from the elbow. Its white canvas body, printed with a rainbow rendition of the LV monogram, contrasted crisply against a soft beige trim punctuated every inch or so with a rounded stud. It was like Paris, France, and Paris Hilton mashed together in one glorious, wearable piece of art.
Needless to say, Kaitlynn’s bag stood out like a beacon in a sea of Jansport backpacks and starter-purses from Target. Plus, not only was Kaitlynn already lucky enough to grace the classroom dressed head-to-toe in the trends du jour (glitter lip gloss, sequined tanks under Abercrombie henleys and faded jeans that came pre-destroyed), Kaitlynn was the first girl in our year to carry a Louis. The entire grade buzzed about her. I noticed that people heard Kaitlynn’s voice, looked at her instead of through her, and talked about asking her to the next dance. In my mind, this was a case of causation, not correlation: clearly her bright, whimsical Murakami had made Kaitlynn the school it-girl. And, she didn’t even have to make cheerleader to get there!
Thus an obsession with bags and fashion was sparked. My mother was puzzled by my new interests, but she tolerated and supported them, driving me to the mall, agreeing to buy me a Vogue subscription, and funding the occasional purchase of a flimsy Abercrombie top that would promptly fall apart in the wash. Over the fall months, the more closely I patterned myself after the Kaitlynns at school, the more comfortable I felt in social interactions. But I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask for a bag to complete the transformation, because as far as I was concerned, nothing could measure up to that beautiful Murakami. I’d heard secondhand that a good fake could be $400, so I was scared even to imagine what a real one might cost.
Why carry a cloth sack worth more than everything in it? Who did I think I was?
Eventually, falling short of an intangible measure of Coolness drove me wild. My eye wandered to other logo-festooned options just before the holidays. Strategically I asked my mother’s feelings on getting me a Coach bag for Christmas and was met with a swift and unyielding NO. What was the point? I was asked. Why carry a cloth sack worth more than everything in it? Who did I think I was? I protested that all the other girls were carrying Coaches and Dooneys, so I wouldn’t fit in without one. My dad’s disappointment was palpable as he gave me his rebuttal. Silly child. A crowd that would reject me over a bag wasn’t worth fitting into, anyway.
The period of my parents’ fashion tolerance had ended. After my failed negotiations, I withdrew for a solid two weeks, channeling my resentment into producing a forest of sketches of original handbag designs: beribboned, baroque things that my sixth grade mind thought were cool. Of course Mom wouldn’t agree, I would think fiercely, breaking my pencil tip on paper. She’s carried that plain brown purse forever. I stopped wanting to shop with her, clinging to my new friends instead. Like a lot of us may have felt when we were young, I think I truly believed for a painful time that ornaments like clothes and bags were the only meaningful barriers that stood between me and my becoming less lonely, less overlooked at school – and when denied those objects, I felt my family had chosen to make sure I wouldn’t have any friends.
Recollecting these feelings and childish compulsions across the distance of years feels silly. As an adult, I don’t process trends or marketing this way anymore, and of course I realize my mother’s brown purse was a manifestation of her practicality, her non-indulgence, and her care for our family. But I return to this arc of development again and again during holiday seasons almost as an act of penitence.
Ironically, when I finally drummed up the courage to ask Kaitlynn directly about her bag—months and months after she first began toting it around in locker-lined hallways between school bells—she unexpectedly laughed and shook her head. I’d wanted to know how she’d convinced her parents to buy her something so high-end, and if she had to trade years of allowance for it. Kaitlynn leaned in close so no one else would hear and whispered, “It’s fake! My mom got it in the back room of this weird store.” I was so stunned, I barely managed to stammer an embarrassed “no thanks” when she offered to find me the store’s address.
Out of curiosity and once recovered, I later took Kaitlynn up on the offer. The store was in a warehouse/office space just off a highway. My mom indulgently offered to drive me there, and I contemplated it for days before I was overwhelmed by an inexplicable wave of guilt and trashed the slip of paper. I had not been fair and respectful to my mother. I had not been fair and respectful to myself. And I didn’t want to carry a fake Louis Vuitton to school and continue the cycle of pressure and pain for someone else in my class, and over what I knew wasn’t even the real thing!
A bag is as much as I permit it to represent—social pressures to “measure up” or “move up” included—and in the years since middle school, I’ve tried not to view a handbag as a talisman of acceptance, of visibility, or of protection against insecurity.
Let me be clear: I love and enjoy handbags. I did as a middle schooler, and if anything, I love them more now. But that love has matured into what I hope is an understanding of all that goes into a projected image, and all that (figuratively and literally) goes into a bag. A bag is as much as I permit it to represent—social pressures to “measure up” or “move up” included—and in the years since middle school, I’ve tried not to view a handbag as a talisman of acceptance, of visibility, or of protection against insecurity. There are two ways I’ve consciously tried to view a handbag instead.
Firstly: handbags are an expression of self purely for oneself; a channel for creativity; a place to telegraph what you value in a brand or in craftsmanship or in something as simple as your taste.
Secondly: a handbag again means comfort, a sense of care for myself and for others, and a sense of safety. Like my mother’s old brown bag, my bags today are well-worn, frequently carried, and safeguard my mundane necessities as I go about city life. Band-aids, hair ties, Dramamine, and often enough for friends and family to pilfer from.
Sometimes I see that Vuitton pochette again in vintage stores, and God, my heart skips a beat every time. There is something of that self-conscious sixth grader in me still, one that never quite closed the chapter on feeling unstylish and invisible, and to this day, that feeling complicates my appreciation of the now-discontinued Murakami line. Are those smiling flowers and rainbow logos actually pleasing to me now? Were they ever? Or is their association with my adolescent in-crowd aspirations powerful enough to be mistaken for an aesthetic attraction, and is that something that can ever be divorced from the experience of that bag…or any other status symbol bag? And when the next it-bag shows up on the arm of the blogger du jour on Instagram, how different is my experience of that product, really, from the moment Kaitlynn walked into English class with the Louis that launched a thousand anxieties?
Asking these questions keeps my habits and anxieties in check. I don’t beat myself up over the impulse to chase the feeing of being included, which in my case is a remnant of the insecurities of adolescence. I shop for myself, shop sensibly, and I don’t dwell on feelings of lack…especially when glammed-up, sparkly ads featuring long, toned, disembodied limbs dangling designer purses begin cropping up on the sides of bus stops and in holiday mailers.
Today, my mother carries a simple, black Kate Spade that I bought her a few Christmases ago. My bags of choice—usually a Céline luggage or a Dior Diorama—sometimes earn me raised eyebrows at home, but at least Dad acknowledges what I do with my money is my business alone. When I don’t beg him for extravagant gifts, I respect his labor and myself as well.
At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, while home for the holidays, my mother reached into the depths of her newer, just-as-utilitarian handbag and produced a painkiller for me when I needed one. Her bag is still nondescript, still practical and bottomless, and still filled with candy and Band-Aids and stamps and things. I no longer evaluate my social capital or place in this world, or anyone else’s, by a handbag carried. My mind is quieter that way.