Life by Design: The Handbag

Some survey of shoppers in England found that women at the approximate age of 30 buy a handbag every three months. I’d like to think these desperados









are serial daters who can’t keep a job and still live at home, but actually this bag buying business may be a pandemic identity crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal this week, ‘during the first three months of this year, sales of women’s handbags were up 31% from the same time last year.’ So much for the Recessionista shaming the Fashionista.

Handbags are the bane of my existence. The pressure of whether to be a slave to the idea that the handbag speaks volumes about who you are, where you came from and where the hell you think you’re going weighs heavy on me.

‘Handbag’ by the way, is American English, versus the European purse, or the French, la bourse. Not to be confused with pocketbook, a word that only seems natural in sentences such as, “an elderly woman was knocked down and the thief escaped with her pocketbook.”

Many things of stature are simply unattainable for most of us: polo ponies and the men who ride them; coastal chateaus; boats with sleeping quarters. But the luxury purse can be dangled from your wrist, reminding you that you’re worth it.

I first fell victim to the status purse when I went to college in Texas, where girls are women. The irony was lost on me that I waited tables in order to buy a duffle style Louis Vuitton, displaying it any chance I got, standing, so it could sit on my bar stool. That one special bag allowed me to focus again and graduate. Subsequently stolen by my movers in Chicago, I revolted and started carrying Coach. I committed to Dooney & Burke.

For years I could excuse my low level purse status with having kids, forcing me to wear the backpack—never the fanny pack—for free hands.  Now luxury labels are available to almost anyone. Suddenly it seemed silly to stand on the sidelines when even perfectly tacky people are toting Gucci.

The first foray started with the knock-offs from Chinatown. But it was too easy to allow oneself to abuse the bag knowing the money you paid for it is funding Al Qaeda.   After tiring of the pleather, and hiding the cheap straps around people with the real thing, I started the consignment route, going to wealthy enclaves like Greenwich and Darien where I pictured the women forgetting to carry their ‘Fendi Foldover with the short strap’, and then giving it away with the rest of last year’s cast-offs. Although this is a solid approach to acquiring your status bag, you really don’t completely fool yourself into thinking you’re fabulous. Paranoia that the original owner is going to reclaim the bag at some event in front of a table full of women you’d rather not know is a liability that’s tough to shake.


Since consignment store bags can be pricey anyway, I jumped at the chance to try to get the next acquisition on-line through one of those designer discount sites after a friend invited me to join    Every couple of days they offer Marc Jacobs, or Tory Burch, or who? Rebecca Minkoff. Like most people, I was put off by not being able to feel the merchandise, or to have a brick and mortar building to return it to.  

Days after biting my nails over the amazing Gilt deals, my neighbor’s hip daughter from the city was visiting and set down the most delicious, supple Hobo bag.  It’s Rebecca Minkoff. Do you know Gilt? It’s $238. from $650.00, so they say. ”   She whipped out her Black Berry and informed me that I had a couple hours left to get the very same bag.

This was fate. Here was the bag right in front of me, no guess work.

I found my new computer had been tampered with by the oldest kid, Max—it was Off-Line and no one had a clue –
I finally located the manual, demanding that my husband figure it out without ever explaining the urgent matter.  By the time he got around to it, the Gilt clock was ticking, 9 minutes and 58 seconds…”Faster Mom!” Max and I were amazed that each bag we clicked on was suddenly Sold Out!   With only minutes to spare I located the Hobo bag that was now only available in burnt orange. A great color for summer! We ordered it. It arrived in two days flat.

I haven’t carried it yet because I’m afraid I’m going to wreck it. But it looks great sitting on a chair.


—Kim Berns is a writer and designer who lives in Rye. She has several handbags to die for.


  1. Yo Kim, you got the suburban mom neurosis down, and we can all relate. I don’t know which is funnier and more true — your bulls-eye take on every woman’s handbag dilemma or the only appropriate sentence in which to use the word “pocketbook.”

    While I get the Gilt emails, I have ignored them. Learning about your Rebecca Minkoff hobo has inspired me to check them out.

    My bag of choice is a black soft-leather Fendi that holds everything that I got on (which I highly recommend) for about 1/2 price. After four years it is held together on one strap by a safety pin.

  2. I learned the hard way through years of commuting that carrying a heavy bag that holds everything but the sink is a surefire way to develop shoulder and neck problems. I thus became a devote of the Healthy Back Bag. Okay – it may not be fashionable, but it saved months of physical therapy and probably surgery. You can order online – but why do that when you shop right here in Larchmont for it — I’ve bought my last two (black, tan) at the luggage store on Palmer.

  3. Oh Lord, does this mean I must cease and desist from shopping for bags at JC Penny? I’ve yet to even desire, much less own, a designer bag. What must this say about me? Don’t answer that. It’s enough to recognize that I don’t even know what Gilt is. Is there a class I can take?

  4. I loved Kim’s article.
    I’m still laughing over the mommy backpack thing. Even though my daughter is 5 I still can’t kick the backpack habit.

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