On the cover of the fall issue of MM, the house magazine put out by Max Mara, Jennifer Garner, who appears in all the brand’s advertising this season, is seated on the floor in a casual I-just-happen-to-be-lying-around-in-an-expensive-camel-coat kind of pose. Beside her is a bag. A substantial bag. A bag that has a personality all its own. One of her hands is on its big, strong shoulder.
But the expression on her face registers annoyance. In fact, that hand on the bag’s shoulder suggests a gentle chastisement, one that pleads for a little understanding, a little patience and, really, must you be so obvious, showing off the lovely tan of your skin? That bag is irritating her, if you ask me. It always wants to sit right beside her, take up space, butt in on a photo shoot even. If the bag had its way, it would plunk itself down on her lap all the time. And I can tell it’s the sort of bag that is happiest when she keeps a good firm grip on its handle.
Studying that ad, I thought that maybe the fashion editors behind that particular Max Mara shoot had not been clear with the expression they asked Garner to summon (either that or Garner, who is considered a great actress, isn’t). But then I realized that just as all fashion editors everywhere seem to conspire behind our backs about what will be the new, hot looks each season – what fun they must have had when they met for herbal tea and zero-calorie crackers earlier this year to decide that we should all be throwing away our money on more leopard print this fall! – so do fashion marketers.
That, surely, is the reason why the Bag (handbag, tote, you name it) is the New Boyfriend this year. If we let our metaphoric imagination run a little wild, given that fashion is often interpreted as a vast silent language expressing cultural anxieties and fantasies, it’s a cheeky feminist take of the economic independence of women who don’t feel they need or want a man, except the kind who will carry your stuff around for you, agree to be elegant arm candy and never, ever complain. These aren’t bags for demure ladies or frivolous girls. They are bags for women who know who they are, where they’re headed and what they’re willing to tolerate – or not. They are in charge and take charge. They have a hand on the handle of all things, as it were. Especially those boyfriend substitutes.
The Kate Spade people have come right out with the comparison. “She took coffee breaks with her beau perhaps a little more often than she should,” reads the coy print advertisement for the 2 Park Avenue Beau Bag, which features a young woman who looks like she’s playing hooky from the office with her handsome, ultrasoft-cowhide lover. “The ideal companion to tote around town,” carries on the marketing material. Not that Beau’s a cheap date – he/it costs $498 – but, with high-end Gucci escorts going for as much as $3,000, he’s certainly a more affordable version of a good time.
Speaking of Gucci, the women in the ads for the Italian brand’s bags look as though they’re planning to commit a lewd sexual act with one. In a Vionnet ad, the model is fellating her bag’s chain strap while watching herself in a mirror. The Hugo Boss campaign shows women sporting their stern, boxy bags like a bouncer protecting them from the camera’s lens. And in a Louis Vuitton ad, Michelle Williams looks slightly bored with her expensive boyfriend. In fact, she appears ready to dump him in the back of the closet – which, of course, is another nice thing about boyfriends that are bags. They’re easy to break up with.
That’s the thing about bags. We all have relationships with them – some good, some bad, some indifferent. In the essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck (And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman), the late Nora Ephron wrote one entitled I Hate My Purse, which hilariously described the tension between a woman and her “demanding accessory.” The purse is “a reflection of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization,” she complained. In short – and to continue the boyfriend metaphor – a bag may make you look good and come in handy, but it can also bring out your worst traits.
The other day, I overheard a conversation between two women that perfectly explained the whole bag/boyfriend thing – why we need more than one, why we divorce some, why we can grow tired of them and treat them badly, why we then splurge on new ones with the delusional hope that a whole new happy relationship is possible.
Woman #1: “That’s a great bag.” She pointed to her friend’s flat cross-body purse.
“It’s pretty good,” Woman #2 responded, patting it gently like a dog. “It carries the essentials. I put my keys in it. My wallet. I can take it anywhere.”
“And you have your hands free!” Woman #1 noted enviously, like a wife who might pointedly admire how a friend’s husband washes the dishes without being asked.
“True,” the other acknowledged smugly. Then she looked down at the bag with a hint of displeasure. “But, like all bags, they are never perfect.”