There are entire specialties of scholarly inquiry into the meaning of the things in our lives. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who researches humans' everyday lives and things shows that people " -- especially women -- particularly value 'contemplative objects' that have positive associations and represent dimensions of who we are" (p. 66). The lovely and engaging, charmingly reported IT'S IN THE BAG: WHAT PURSES REVEAL AND CONCEAL by Winifred Gallagher sheds light on what purses mean, their history, how certain ones become "IT" and how women relate to these objects in their lives. As a woman who never seems to have enough purses, I was very curious about what I would learn in this book and very gratified by what I found here.
Gallagher, who has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and has written books on spirituality, among other topics, takes her reportage on this issue just seriously enough. (In the conclusion she states that a purse isn't going to change anyone's life significantly.) But she does examine just thoroughly enough the historical context of the purse, how they are produced, who makes decisions about the accessories we carry (even when we purport not to care, we are carrying out the vision of someone, somewhere who does!), why women are attached to their handbags and the individual stories of specific women (such as Gov. Ann Richards, who designed her own for the utmost utility and attractiveness). She quotes designers, fashion directors, store buyers and purse connoisseurs and obsessives. She talks to everyone from French marketing research guru Clotaire Rapaille to Isaak Mizrahi ("You cannot ignore your hair or your shoes or your bra--those things you must, must, must come to terms with. But...your bag can be your totally functional friend or your amusing court jester" [p. 62].)
I found the chapter on why we care absolutely fascinating and illuminating. I remember a while ago saying to my husband, "What is it about purses that is so irresistible to me?" He said, "Maybe you just like them." But now I know there are ways to parse and understand that interest, which relates back to how individuals endow certain objects with meaning, which according to Csikszentmihalyi is part of an individual's necessary development of self. Purses appeal because they answer behavioral needs (or utility needs such as carrying the things busy women need on their long, demanding days), visceral needs (appealing to the woman both visually and tactically) and reflective needs (calling to mind something from our past that had emotional meaning for us, such as a mother's fine-leather handbag). We certainly know that we make more decisions on the emotional-subconscious level than we often admit. A purse that speaks to a woman on all these levels may cause her to plunk down $1,200 to $2,000 for a handbag!
I thought this book was completely enjoyable, and adds to the constantly evolving portrait we have of the contemporary woman. I recommend it!