March 19, 2024

Not Without My Handbag (1993).
What’s in a Bag?
Essay by Mána Taylor
One of my favorite cartoons growing up was an Aardman Productions short titled “Not Without My Handbag.” In this animation, a girl’s aunt suddenly returns the night after her death, in skeletal form, to claim her purse–a red-plaid clutch she couldn’t believe that she had left behind on her way to hell. (In a bizarre and twisted series of events, the aunt is taken to hell because she forgot to pay a bill.) The aunt says to her screaming niece, “You just wouldn’t believe what happened. I’ve been through hell, and just think, I forgot to take my handbag!” Hell is a large spiral staircase that opens up under the floorboards. The devil who wants to lure her back there morphs into the shape of her handbag, adorned now with sharp teeth and pearl eyes. The niece decides that the only solution to end this debacle is to buy the entire stock of pastries at the bakery. The devil-now-purse creature devours it all, as hoped, until he fills up the room and becomes an enormous enlarged entity full of pastries. The devil-bag soon after explodes, flies back in its small handbag form into the aunt’s hands, and the devil finally vanishes from it. “Ah, now I can rest in peace” she exclaims as she hugs her purse. 

I’ve been carrying around the same tote bag for a few years now: a big, blue, McNally Jackson tote that I bought for $20 in a brash spontaneity - when in desperate need of a bag to carry all my things, and all my other tote bags failed me by falling apart or being too small. A few months after I bought my tote bag, the McNally Jackson bookstore left its Prince Street location. And a few months after that, I was walking near its now empty storefront and overheard a group of people waiting to cross the street towards it, saying “but where will all the hipsters get their bags?” The New Yorker tote bag is much more infamous, I thought to myself, wondering why they had associated my large blue bag with this label hipster. I’m not sure if everyone’s rushing to buy magazine tote bags, anyways, as much as they rushed for the Sandy Liang x Baggu collaboration which sold out days after its release. I even noticed a $120 tote, which Jenny G. Zhang noted in Slate, is “available in two preciously named colors, ‘eucalyptus’ and ‘strawberry milk.’ 

We become identifiable by our bags. Sometimes, on the train, I will spot three or four tote bags from recognizable galleries in Tribeca and Chelsea, recognizing each tote bag has its own complex universe. Other times, the tote bag gives an air of casualness, it can feel slacken and not attached to any meaning. In Zhang’s piece about Emily Mariko’s $120 tote bag, she also describes the “quiet luxury” that this item holds. “Her totes aren’t made for me or for you—they’re made for the Lululemon-wearing, Erewhon-shopping, green juice–sipping women.” Hiding behind the cloth appearance of a tote bag is a luxurious expense, the cost of a week of groceries. And in that case, inexpensive tote bags connote a sense of anti-luxury: choosing a $10 tote above a luxury handbag. 

The Birkin bag was created because Jane Birkin used to carry around a big Easter-type wicker basket to fit everything she wanted to carry around. One day, she happened to be seated next to the CEO of Hermès in a plane when the contents of her basket bag spilled out in front of him while trying to put it in the overhead compartment. A bigger purse, she told him, was all she needed in life. And now they cost around $10,000. It seems that more fashion designers are embracing the large bags, expanding their sizes to hold more and more. Like the Telfar Clemens purse, which I’ve seen on numerous occasions onboard the L train, and was dubbed the Bushwick Birkin. Since I’ve started to notice it, I have seen both an extra large carry-on version and a miniscule hand-held version. 

We assign value to objects, give meaning to them and define ourselves alongside our objects. The body of a handbag gives us meaning to what we belong to and who we belong with. In a Baffler article about “status bags,” the author wrote “The educated Birkin buyer enjoys knowing that its skin comes directly from the Hérmes crocodile farm. Yet for most consumers, the brand-status of the bag itself, rather than an evaluation of its objective quality, still holds sway.” This could be said for an expensive tote bag. It’s unsure how much more unique the quality of cotton is or the effort that went into making it, it’s the idea of its symbol that creates the desire for carrying it around. A bookstore or magazine tote also has a certain status attached to it. 

A couple years ago, beneath the floorboards of a school, contractors found a small purse that once belonged to a 13-year old girl in 1959. Among the contents were handwritten notes, a floral handkerchief, a mini calendar, some photographs, even an invitation to a dance party handwritten in cursive. It’s a beautiful and candid portrait of time and of a young person, standing still as an artifact of who someone once lived and went to high school, and the meaningful objects in her life. An archive of 50 years ago, somehow having withstood the test of time under the floor during all those years–notes and objects that might have otherwise been discarded, not necessarily items we hold onto forever.

Last year at the New Museum, I watched Wangechi Mutu’s three-channel video piece titled “The End of Carrying All.” A woman is walking alone in a deserted landscape, up a hill, and balancing a basket on her head. The more she walks, the more this basket accumulates: a bicycle wheel, a TV antenna, a house - all start to pile on her head. The weight of the world is–quite literally–on her shoulders. And the farther up this hill she walks, carrying and carrying the weight of what slowly seems to resemble a city, with homes and telephone wires, the smaller she gets. In the end, similarly to the Aardman cartoon, the woman in Mutu’s video is crushed by the enormous accumulated mass of everything she was carrying, and suddenly falls off a cliff. Everything that had been carried, including who had been carrying it, disappears. 


Film Still from Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)

Mána Taylor is a writer and art critic currently based in New York.