The purpose of the purse: personality or practicality?

The Shiniest Pink Purse That Ever Was

If I had to describe my most traumatic experience from middle school, it had to be when I was outed as being the first in my grade to get her period. In the young adult novels I smuggled into world history class, teen girls feverishly prayed to get their periods. In these novels, getting your period equaled entry into the coveted and secret world of womanhood, where you would be Grown Up and have a boyfriend who drives a Trans Am and wear expensive perfume from department stores.

In my school, being the first to careen into puberty earned me a spot in science lab, where I ate my lunch alone every day to avoid being teased. There was no dramatic Judy Blume moment for me, no envious whispers from my classmates. No, it seemed I was supposed to stay a girl forever.

My unveiling as a woman happened in sixth grade. I was ensconced in the back of class, huddled with three popular girls. I was not a popular girl. For one thing, I played the flute in band. This was the kiss of death. I also wore Sassoon jeans instead of Guess, and sneakers from Sears instead of Reeboks, and had a mom who worked. The popular girls had moms in the PTA and ate tuna fish salad sandwiches made on fluffy white bread with the crusts cut off. I had the school hot lunch, frozen pizza delivered on a cardboard tray.

One of the girls lunged across my desk and snatched my purse. It was a nylon pastel striped number with a snap-front outside pocket. She called it cute.

This was my moment. Despite my shortcomings, I was certain I'd now be indoctrinated into the Popular Girls clique. I practically swooned.

"Eeeeww...what's this???" she screeched suddenly, pulling a tampon out from the front pocket. My stomach lurched. "You're, like, bleeding right now?" Then she declared, in a voice so cold it dripped icicles. "So...gross."

I felt violated.

I remember my first purse, which I received as a gift for my eighth birthday. It was pink and had silver sparkles woven through it. I carried that purse everywhere. It went with me when I got a haircut. It carried my Barbie dolls to playmates. It bulged with coins I had rescued from our couch cushions and bottle caps and movie tickets and Bonnie Bell lip gloss and notes from my best friend. I left it behind at a flea market once and nearly lost my mind with terror. My purse was an extension of me. It held all my secrets. At eight, my only brush with privacy came when I locked myself in the bathroom while my parents fought in our tiny apartment. My purse was the same.

The other day I came across an article describing an project by German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann. He has displayed the contents of six real women’s bags as part of his solo art show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. You see everything, from piles of loose spare change to dirty flats to business cards, all laid out perfectly.

Although he didn’t approach total strangers -- as the artist told The Guardian, “I didn’t go up to women randomly, they would have called the police” -- he only asked slight acquaintances, and they had to give up their bag that instant if they wanted to be included in the show. For their troubles, and for putting up with their bag and all the contents inside (except for passports and credit cards, which they got to keep) going missing for a few week, he paid them each about $650.

While some people might question whether or not this could really be considered art, what I found interesting was the concept itself. It’s hard not to feel protective of your handbag, as if it’s some sort of extension of yourself. It’s that sort of secrecy that inspired Feldmann in the first place: “I remember my mother and her handbag and it was a taboo to look at what was in it, a really strict taboo,” he said.

Be honest: How would you feel about people rummaging through your handbag? What sort of things would they find? Do you think of your purse as an extension of yourself, or merely as a functional object? And would you take $650 if it meant the public would see the contents of your handbag?


  1. My purse is definitely an extension of me, but it's also functional. There's always a ton of random stuff inside... I have everything from 5 different varieties of lip-products to my point-and-shoot with 4 filters in there, and then some. I've got a variety of medical things too--pills, bandaids, tampons... and during the summer there's always some kind of mosquito bite remedy in there. I could go on, but I won't bore you. Maybe one of these days I'll just empty it out and take a few pics haha!

    And you bet I'd take $650 to show the public the contents of my bag!

  2. Oh, poor, poor Elissa! What a vile memory, and those are always the ones that pop up randomly to torture us. I'm sure those girls all peaked in 9th grade and wouldn't get a second glance in the Wal-Mart today.

    I bet everyone who reads your post today does the same thing - pulls out their purse and rummages through it. Nothing TOO random in mine, though I found the cap had come off my hand lotion, so thanks for saving me from a big mess! But I admit one of the best things about menopause was freedom from carrying around tampons.

    I had a friend say once she thought of her car as an extension of her purse. She kept granola bars in her glove box until mice found there way in and nibbled them.

  3. Really funny and interesting post!;)
    I've been wearing purses since I was 3 and I've never been able to let go of my purse obsession. I absolutely see it as an extension of myself and as a symbol of my personality,huge and chaotic! However I would have no problem showing its contents. Guess I'm like the see-through purses we've been seeing lately, got nothing to hide! :)

  4. I would definitely take the money! I have a small zipper pouch where I keep my purse essentials (including icky feminine products), so transferring from purse to purse is easy. Then, it's just my wallet, day planner, and phone. Nothing gross or all too private!

  5. cute!!!

  6. I sometimes need my kids or my husband to rummage through my purse for something, so I never keep anything in there I would want to hide from them. In fact, I carry very little in my purse. There's something very freeing about having only the bare essentials with me: credit cards, cash, ID, whatever lipstick I'm wearing. Otherwise, I just feel as though I'm lugging around...I don't know...objects all day long, and that concept feels very tiring to me.

  7. I would take the $650 in a heartbeat. Then again, I change bags almost daily, so there's very little embarrassing rubbish in my bag at any given time.

  8. Great Article, Elissa!! We are attached to our handbags, aren't we? I think fashion followed function. As we had a need to hold all or our 'stuff', well we may as well make it pretty.

    I had not heard of Feldmann's exhibit, but I suppose the art is in the commentary about the attachment. I think my bag's contents are pretty mundane and although I probably wouldn't take the $650, because...well, I really like my stuff..this and the bag are definitely an extension of me. The thought of running around to replace it all would stress me out, but I wouldn't have an issue having the contents displayed...there are no skeletons in my bag :) I know there are lots of ladies who are very protective of their purse contents and I totally understand & respect that.

    Very provocative topic....I am intrigued to read the rest of the comments.

  9. I remember in about fifth grade the girls started getting Liz Clairborne purses. The bags marked those who were "in" and those who were so dreadfully "out" (me). I drooled over those bags. By the time I'd saved enough money to get one, and was allowed to purchase it, the trend had advanced further up the cost chain to Dooney & Burke. By high school it was Coach. Sigh. I was doomed on so many levels to never quite fit in. (I was a flute player too!) I also remember if someone wanted to truly humiliate a girl all they had to do was to grab her purse off her chair during class and start to go through it. The blessed few times it happened to me I felt so violated. Fortunately, I was so on the outer fringe of society, my purse was not a highly coveted object.

    As an adult woman, there isn't much in my bag that I wouldn't dump on the table in front of my boss. A few of my son's cars, many, MANY, lipsticks, a powder brush, iPhone, iPad (if it is a workday), wallet, tide stain stick for my husband, tampons and pads, advil, and a few receipts. Nothing exciting:). But still, I protect it instinctively. I view it as an extension of myself. I guess that never changes from our earliest denim bag in elementary school to our most chic adulthood hobo sac.

  10. I used to do a similar exercise to Feldman's in my creative writing classes as a lesson in constructing characters indirectly. Gradually, I came to realize the violation of personal privacy it was. So, while there is nothing "secret" per se in my bag...I really don't want people rummaging around in my mess.

  11. I've always wondered why other women were so protective of what's inside their purse. I guess I'm just really tidy. I empty them out when I get home, and when I go, I only put the essentials in it. Which generally means I only have my phone, wallet and keys in there. I have about three purses I regularly use, and they also all have an extra cotton bag (for when my purse isn't big enough when I go shopping), and tampons and pads. There's nothing in there I'd be embarrassed about to show to the public, and I'd be more than happy to spill the contents of my bag for $650, though I'm not sure I could handle my stuff being gone for a week or so.

  12. Give me the $650! While there are definitely some personal things in my purse, it isn't anything I'd mind someone seeing for that amount of money.

  13. First, I never realized kids were so mean (O_O). I was in band as well plus UIL but I rarely got teased. Those girls were outright cruel...

    Also, I don't know if I would consider what Feldmann as art but I do get the allure of it. Those "What In In My/Her Bag" blog posts are really popular and some have made it into a regular feature.

    I think when it comes to personality vs productivity, you gotta find the right medium. I've bought bags that looked awesome but when it came to using them, the shape was off, not enough pockets, and no o-rings to clip my keys. But bags are THING with women because when you find the right one, it's like the Holy Grail.. for that month. XD


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