Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004





In Fashion…What no woman can do without

One of the trendiest fashion accessories is the handbag, and I suppose no woman can do without it. But the handbag came into my view through a rather negative route, though a long time ago. I was in Hyderabad watching the International Children’s Film Festival when I met a woman director from Amsterdam who had a very interesting movie to screen. It was about juvenile delinquents specialising in snatching handbags especially from elderly women. The little boys made their living from whatever they found in those handbags. The bags by themselves were of little use to these rascals.

I remembered the film all over again when I saw a similar incident in another movie at the recent Cannes Film Festival (May 2007). A Turkish work by Fatih Akin, “The Edge of Heaven”, it shows how a street urchin in Istanbul grabs the handbag of a visiting German girl and escapes. This episode serves as a turning point in the movie. It was then that I remembered the earlier Dutch work.

Well, the purpose of this column is not to discuss either of the films, but to merely suggest how important a handbag can be for a lady. A remarkable accessory of style, symbol and status, the handbag today comes in hundreds of sizes, shapes and shades. Some of them come with fascinating prints, floral or otherwise, and often a handbag reflects the mood and mind of one who carries it. Maybe, it also gives a good indication of her character.

Interestingly, handbags have been around for centuries. Fourteenth century literature mentions them, and it is perhaps the first recorded history of these bags, though Egyptian hieroglyphs show pouches carried around the waist. Bags were attached to girdles, which were fastened around the waist. These bags were embellished with jewels and often elaborately embroidered. The richer the person the more intricate was the decoration.

The handbags evolved over the centuries, and in the 16th century, they became far more practical. Leather was used to make them as was cloth. Sometimes, travellers carried them diagonally across their bodies.

I suppose as time went by, the handbags became smaller and far more elegant. Their shapes got varied, even complex. Embroidery became an integral part of a handbag.

However, in the 18th century, the handbag got a new name, reticule, and was used by women to carry rouge, face powder, a fan, a scent bottle, visiting cards and smelling salts (!).

It was only in the 19th century that the reticule was finally called handbag, but this term was usually used for hand-held luggage carried by men. Women took a fancy for this, and the bag was seen transforming into a fascinating piece of fashion accessory. The handbag got a fastener, more compartments to carry even opera glasses apart from cosmetics and fans.

The handbag revolution came about in the 1920s, when the hemline rose, women’s clothing became skimpy and the handbag got more stylish and innovative. Often, a woman carried a doll dressed exactly like herself complete with a matching bag for her tiny companion.

By the 1950s, some of the world’s most renowned fashion houses began designing handbags. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci and Christian Dior led the handbag revolution. They created magic out of these style accessories, and a handbag became a ticking part of a woman.

It took many decades for the handbag craze to catch on in India. Of course, it began with copies, and we saw perfect look-alikes of a Chanel or Dior on the streets of Mumbai or New Delhi. The Indian woman was happy with such stuff, and, well, who cared as long as they looked decent. After all, the price was an important factor.

However, with the rise of disposable income that enabled the middle-class Indian to travel and fancy the real thing, designer handbags trooped into the country. Dior, Bvlgari, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Valentino are all here, and the Indian woman can now be seen with the trendiest handbags on the streets or bars or restaurants of India’s metros. From Dior’s saddle bag to the eye-catching Gucci limited edition, the bags are all here. The price, well, who really bothers, with the average middle-class now stepping into the style mode.

Let me end with a great example. The Hermes Kelly Bag, named after Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco (also a legendary Hollywood actress), is crafted by an individual artisan, who takes about 18 hours to style it out of real goat skin. It is the last word on handbag magnificence. Out in India, wow.

(Webposted June 12 2007)