Handbags evolved from simple pouches, to carry coins and valuables, that hung from men and women’s belts — Judas Iscariot was described as a purse carrier.
Bags held herbs and spices, to drown out undesirable odours, and became a fashion accessory in the 19th century, when they were bejewelled and embroidered to display wealth. Reticules in France were small purses with wrist straps made of silk and velvet — in Britain known as ‘indispensables’ — to keep the silhouette free of bulk. Adapted in war-time and the industrial revolution into bulkier satchels, it was in the 1950s that handbags became the fashion essential they are today.
Our daily accessories are ‘housed’ in bags of all sizes, and we pay huge money for the status of designer labels. There are waiting lists for some bags, a marketing hype that viewers of Sex and the City will remember, in an industry valued at $9bn in the US. There are enough aspirational women prepared to pay $10,000 for their status symbol.
At the height of Ireland’s boom, leather goods manufacturer Conor Holden employed 14 people at Baile an Ghoilin, three miles west of Dingle. From a low of two employees a few years ago, he has swung back to opening a new shop at the Old Forge Holy Ground in Dingle, and taken on two more employees. Actress Victoria Smurfit described Holden bags as “modern classics”. “That’s how we have survived,” says Holden. “Fashion changes too quickly and good design lasts better.” As Georgio Armani said, “the difference between style and fashion is quality”. Some bags have a resale value as vintage classics.
Holden says the pockets inside his bags have changed shape, from big and chunky, for old mobile phones, to slimmer and wider, to accommodate smartphones. He also produces iPad covers. “People often fall in love with our bright-pink or citrus-coloured leather bags, but many opt for more classic black, coffee, chestnut and red, in the end.” Some people want slouchy, some want a bag that will stand up. “Sometimes, we make a bag to order, with leather and lining in whatever colour and texture they want,” says Holden, “but produce another bag which we also think will suit the buyer, which we can always sell in the shop, anyway. Very often, the customer buys what we thought they would like. In the end, it’s an emotional decision.”
The most expensive handbags are made by Hermès, founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermes, who was a saddle and harness-maker. Hermes makes the Birkin bag, named after singer Jane Birkin, and the Kelly bag, after actress Grace Kelly. The Willow bag, from Mulberry, model Kate Moss’s alleged favourite (at least this week), sells in Brown Thomas for €1,600.
Olivia Palermo was seen during the Cannes film festival with the Louis Vuitton Sofia Coppola bag, worth $4,850. Last year, it was selling for $4,650. Maybe bags are an investment. Founded in 1854 in Paris, the Louis Vuitton company was valued in 2012 at $25.9bn (US).
In Paris, stylish women (and men) carry their fruit and baguettes in the classic, foldaway, nylon water-resistant bag from Longchamp. Costing about €80, it’s a tidy sum for your apples and pears. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to cost. Small hard bags can cost as much as soft, large ones.
We don’t need to pay a fortune for designer bags. A simple, canvas bag will function as well as bags studded with fake or real diamonds. Many people choose to spend as much money on a bag as it would take to feed a child in Syria. We make choices every day, for sensible and fun reasons. Companies produce bags for us to buy, or not, as we choose. As long as we don’t believe we are better people for any of it, we have a chance of staying sane. But those prices…