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Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Why a Chanel Bag Is Never Just a Chanel Bag

The uncomfortable psychology of luxury bags

I like to credit myself as a pretty sensible person, especially when it comes to fashion. I like clothes, enjoy shopping and occasionally flick through Vogue, but my interest is fairly contained. I like fashion the way lots of people like The Big Bang Theory—I‘m engaged, but not obsessed.

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Handbags can make people feel more worthy, more powerful, more capable—just all around better.

So, why, if I'm so sensible, am I utterly fascinated by designer handbags? My current collection extends to one Louis Vuitton, one Dior, two Marc Jacobs and two Michael Kors. Many of these were gifts; the ones I paid for were justified by quality, workmanship, versatility and the fact they were on sale. But I know, and anyone who has seen me in a department store knows, that there is much more to my passion than that.

And it's not just me; last year women around the world bought over 25 million luxury bags. Experts suggest that women's bags can play crucial roles in regulating their psyches. Handbags can make people feel more worthy, more powerful, more capable—just all around better. This drive to prove ourselves means luxury accessories now make up almost a third of the roughly $244 billion global luxe market, according to Bain.

Back in 2013, a University of Minnesota study suggested women buy designer handbags to signal the devotion of their partners and warn off potential rivals. "When a woman is flaunting designer products, it says to other women ‘back off my man'," researcher Vladas Griskevicius said. I wanted to be skeptical, but I felt a little uncomfortable twinge of recognition.

I didn't believe my love for handbags stemmed from a subconscious desire to ward off romantic rivals. But I did know that a designer handbag seemed like a symbol to the outside world that everything was OK. My fascination with handbags started around a time of great upheaval in my personal life. Could it be that my conspicuous consumption was an attempt to convince the world that everything was fine, maybe even better than before, when in reality I was flailing around in the storm, searching for a place to land and rebuild?

"There's a rich literature in materialism that talks about people using material goods to deal with internal discomfort, depression and anxiety," Yajin Wang, assistant professor at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, told me.

A designer handbag seemed like a symbol to the outside world that everything was OK.

"Past research has shown that there is a link between experiencing traumatic life events and buying expensive products. People use luxury goods to distract themselves or to convince themselves that they are valuable," Wang said. Handbags are one of the most effective signals we can use to boost status, she explained, because they are easy for others to interpret.

But what if you just happen to like beautiful leather goods? I checked in with Karen Pine, psychology professor and author of Mind What You Wear: The Psychology Of Fashion. She agrees with Wang and Griskevicius' theory.

"It's mainly women who notice other women's bags. I'd go so far as to say bags represent a kind of secret code between women. They look at another woman's bag and make assumptions about her based on the brand and their knowledge of the cost," she said.

This urge to cover my emotional wounds by flaunting my purchasing power most likely served only to lay bare the fact I was "a bit lost". As philosopher Alain de Botton noted in his book Status Anxiety: "The desire for high status is never stronger than in situations where ‘ordinary' life fails to answer a median need for dignity and comfort."

Of course, advertising, branding, and celebrity association contribute to our perception of a handbag and shape our beliefs about its transformative powers. Images from the likes of Michael Kors and Dior serve to link luxe accessories with celebrity, sex, glamour and mystery in the collective mind. And in our always-on culture, we receive these messages 24 hours a day. A study of US and Arab teens showed materialistic tendencies increasing with use of social media. Instagram, fashion blogs and haul videos have turned "keeping up with the Joneses" into a global game, where supposed peers can outspend and out-fashion us at every step.

The bag's crucial role in our everyday lives may be why we invest so much emotionally and financially in this accessory.

But handbags are also functional. I carry my life in my handbag—my phone, diary, book, wallet, passport, lip gloss, loose change, work documents, building pass—and that gives the bag a special place in my wardrobe. It is not an embellishment but a necessity. The bag's crucial role in our everyday lives may be why we invest so much emotionally and financially in this accessory. If a handbag is the essence of us, mine offers a worrying insight into my psyche: smooth and expensive on the outside, a jumble of crushed mints, foreign coins and old receipts inside.

I want to believe that bags are just bags: big pockets of leather or cotton or plastic that are used to carry stuff around in. But fashion is a universal language, a code we never stop transmitting even when we dress without (conscious) thought. The right bag can make me stand up taller, chat more with strangers, return a withering sales girl's icy stare, call out taxi drivers for taking the long way, suggest unusual plans to my friends.

When I carry a certain bag, I feel like the kind of person who typically owns that bag. And though I might protest, deep down, I know I want to be the kind of woman who has a Chanel flap. I refuse to acknowledge that owners of these lambskin beauties are people tormented by insecurities, with holes in their hearts they can't fill. I want to believe they are sorted, savvy and sophisticated—just like I would be, if I only had the damn bag.

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