The correct answer I believe is: “All of the above.” I’m not a handbag person, per se, although I own several. I don’t think of status so much when I buy a purse, yet I realize that, in addition to function, which for me means not too heavy and enough room for my stuff, I am conveying something about myself when I tote around my handbag. As Nora Ephron said in her very funny essay, I Hate My Purse, “…your purse is, in some absolutely horrible way, you…”
Whether real, fake, or my new favorite, ‘luxury pre-owned,’ handbags are an expression of who we are and where we belong in social, economic and fashion terms. As our most visible fashion accessory, our handbag is both functional and symbolic, conveying to others the tribe to which we belong. A form of self-expression and signal of personal style, handbags are also an entrée to luxury and glamour. One may not be able to afford that penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue; or, the private tented safari in Africa; but, one could, perhaps, feel a part of that world with say, a Louis Vuitton bag.
The most iconic of all the handbags are Hermes and Chanel, followed by Louis Vuitton, at the top tier. Other favorites include Balenciaga, Celine, Prada, Fendi, and Gucci. While many of these bags have no visible identification of status, meaning often no monograms or logos, status is what they convey. Everyone in the know, knows what they are and how much they cost. Whether a celebrity who has likely been given an ‘it’ bag for promotional purposes; a hip-hop diva; or an aspirational consumer who wants to send a strong message about who she is and spends much of her life savings on one, a handbag sends a loud message and carries an emotional reward for those who choose to invest in one. Hermes’ Birken model is the highest of high status — because it is not easily accessible. Pre-owned Birkens have sold for over $100,000 on portera.com, the preeminent retailer of luxury pre-owned handbags and watches,. Both Martha Stewart and L’il Kim proudly carried their Birkens to court appearances before going off to jail.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a well-known tiered pyramid of human needs. The system outlines five basic needs, culminating with self-actualization. His theory posits that once our basic needs are met, we can achieve a higher level of awareness, creativity and moral purpose. The bottom of the pyramid begins with the Basic Physiological or survival needs like air, food and shelter; progresses through Safety and Security, to Love and Belonging. Humans need to feel a part of something, primarily family and community. Brands play a role here. People want to be affiliated with other like-minded souls and a brand is a badge of affiliation. Retailers can, and often do, capitalize on this by merchandising accordingly. The next tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy is Esteem where status, acceptance and recognition come to play. People want to be valued by others (and themselves) to gain self-esteem. A handbag, which is immediately recognized for its style, price and brand affiliation is one quick fashion route to status, recognition and the self-esteem that is derived from it. Susan Engle, CEO of Portera.com, says, “Bags are so important…they definitely say something about you and are the surest way for someone to know how much you paid. Obvious is key!”
Certainly it is no accident that nearly half of the first floor and all of the Lexington Avenue entrance area of Bloomingdales 59th Street flagship is devoted to handbags. The top-tier retailers, Saks, Neiman’s and Bergdorf, designers and manufacturers alike, are capitalizing on handbags as the 21st Century’s most lucrative status symbol by devoting significant space, free- standing lifestyle boutiques (read Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Michael Kors ) and hefty promotional dollars to handbags.
I interviewed several women to understand how they felt about their handbags. All agreed that handbags were important and many loved shopping for them and wearing them. Likely, because with a handbag, one can instantly achieve the desired effect and image. And, you don’t have to try it on. Most women agreed that handbags had to meet functional criteria: nearly all said that bags should not be too heavy. In terms of fashion and status, the women I interviewed felt that their handbag was “definitely part of my fashion image” and that a handbag, if wrong, “could ruin your fashion image.” A young financial advisor defined a ‘status bag’ as “…expensive…the latest handbag…featured in a magazine and often you see a celeb wearing it…” Most women volunteered that a handbag was an investment and as such they looked for classic styles “you don’t want a too trendy look that will be dated the next season.” Perhaps because the price tag is so high, women want quality: “I buy for the long term, not throw away.”
Some women did not distinguish between real and fake. “I still regret not buying a replica LV purse in China. So I guess status matters.” Real or fake, the handbag is a personal statement and one that, for most women, is needed, fun to buy, and fun to wear. Whether they are consciously or unconsciously communicating their status, women feel good about their handbags. Even Nora Ephron, who, at the end of that classic essay, wound up with a yellow vinyl NYC taxi bag purchased at Grand Central Station that she loved. One North Carolina woman summed it up nicely: “Classic handbags are forever and can be thrown together with what one is wearing to either bring the outfit together or stand out and make a statement. They are, at times, the most fun part of getting myself out the door.”