If fashion is one mode to express self-identity and uniqueness, handbags are probably the most provocative and distinctive item to declare one’s individuality. Almost everyone carries a bag whether they are shoulder bags, handbags, or backpacks to hold daily essentials. Yet carrying a bag in terms of style and fashion connotes an alternative meaning, the function of the bag is not just to carry ‘stuff,’ but the bag itself is utilized as a communication device to send and receive particular messages about the carrier’s wealth and social standing. But like any fashion interpretation, if the item is placed in the wrong context, a successful transmission of the message cannot be established. And as much as class distinction can be augmented, it can also be moderated. Taking these factors into consideration, I would like to pose the following questions; how is hierarchy presented by carrying different purses? Does holding a luxury brand bag signify one’s exclusive taste? Does authenticity matter?
Especially in a city like New York, carrying a certain bag is an act of asserting one’s economic stance and showing that they have additional money to spare. In the film Devil wears Prada Nate, a heterosexual male protagonist says, “Why do women need so many bags? You have one. You put all your junk in it, and that’s it. You’re done.” And Doug, a homosexual male who has wide range of fashion knowledge answers, “Fashion is not about utility. An accessory is merely a piece of iconography used to express individual identity.” We know that for women, possessing handbags are not for utility but for expression of self, like Doug says in the film. And the expression of self usually involves displaying the extent of wealth that one can acquire. And for that, fashion magazines always put great emphasis on the launch of a new designer bag that is in trend. Especially the fashion industry draws our attention to the types of bags that celebrities carry in their daily life.
These handbags that the celebrities carry are not inexpensive, and the readers of the magazine are led to believe that we should praise their consumption habits and try to purchase the same celebrity bags to achieve that look.
According to Veblen, people consume conspicuously not to differentiate themselves from others but to associate themselves with a preferred group. People try to conform to a “conventional standard of decency” (63 Veblen) through accumulation of goods. To this statement I cannot concur wholly. It is true that fashion and consumption hierarchy is built up based on this notion, but do contemporary people really consume with the intention of fitting in? From personal observations people in modern society, especially in large cities, purchase objects and items that makes them stand out more in the crowd and be perceived as more unusual and unique. The problem is that the measure of uniqueness is defined by the price of items that an individual can afford.
This Birkin bag costs $80,000 and only three of the same bag was ever made, one of which is owned by Victoria Beckham. From the economic point of view, it is natural when something is more rare the price is higher. But somehow our culture has shaped us to think that owning more expensive goods, especially bags, is equivalent to having better taste. Thus the price of the purse not only determines a hierarchy in class but also who is more fashionable.
Bourdieu elaborates on this idea of hierarchy of objects in his essay where he argues that “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make.” (6 Bordieu) Our tastes are determined by our upbringing and background, thus what constitutes good taste and bad taste depends on the norms that refer to the social group that we belong to.
For example, how much can one assume this bag is worth? From my perspective I would have guessed it is worth less than 20 dollars; however, the actual price of this purse is $74,000. Upon seeing the bag I could not assume such large number, but possibly a person who knows the value of this bag would have estimated its price, which supports Bourdieu’s theory that consuming behaviors correlate with the cultural class dispositions.
As much as hierarchy can be reinforced with the carrying of purses, it can just as easily be demolished. The extensive availability of counterfeit bags is one instance that diminishes fashion hierarchy. The replica market occupies a great deal of the fashion and economic industry.
What is more intriguing about these counterfeit items is that their quality and designs are no longer regarded as cheap and non-functional, but on the contrary, they are so similar to the original item that it is almost impossible to differentiate the authentic from the counterfeit. Then the question arises, asides from ethical and moral reasons, why buy an authentic bag for $2000 when you can buy a real-looking replica for $200? Young argues that consuming behaviors that prefer specific brands and designs depend on the different class of consumers, which consists of “patricians, parvenus, poseurs, and proletarians.” (17 Young) Therefore a person who belongs to a patrician group will buy an authentic luxury bag whereas a person who is a poseur will buy a replica. But for a moment let’s assume that accidentally a counterfeit bag was sold to a very renowned celebrity. And that celebrity carries that bag to a prominent fashion event. Fashion paparazzi will take numerous photos of her carrying that bag and upload them online and people everywhere will want to have the same bag. Will anyone question the authenticity of the bag? The answer would be no. Our thought processes are conducted by the context of when and where the item is placed at, and people presuppose that a celebrity at a fashion event will never carry a counterfeit item despite the actuality of the situation. Therefore the value of hierarchical object is no longer valid.
Another example of a diminishing fashion hierarchy is the widespread purchase of luxury brands that are sold at a reasonable price. Louis Vuitton Monogram Speedy is known in Korea as the three-second-bag, its meaning deriving from the fact that you can spot it every three seconds on the street. Due to mass production of luxury goods, the luxury brand no longer maintains high-class exclusivity but reaches out to wider range of demographic.
Despite the label of being a luxury brand, if everyone can possess it and it is no longer rare or unique why do people still purchase the purse? Is it just the ‘parvenus’ who like buying bags with large logos and explicit display of designer label? Is it possible that the ‘luxury’ brands lost hierarchical connotation? So eventually, carrying designer bags no longer signifies class distinction hence the hierarchical structure of consumption is blurred.
Fashion hierarchy is associated with display of wealth and economic stance, but the platform in which one flaunts a particular bag is also an important factor in determining its value and meaning. Carrying the same bag at either Chinatown or a fashion event could communicate very different connotations. It is worthy to notice that bags as accessories can be contextualized accordingly, and the system of hierarchy of carrying these bags is ever changing don’t remain constant throughout.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1984. N. pag. Print.
Veblen, Thorstein. “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Dover Thrift ed. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-70. Print.
Young, Jee Han. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing (2010): 15-30. Web.