By Tunji Olaopa
For someone who has lots of women in his life, speaking about fashion, and women’s fashion for that matter, should really not be a strange matter. Even in a society where fashion has become one of the marks of modern consciousness, one does not really need to be surrounded by women to be inundated daily with the accoutrement of a celebrity culture defined by what one wears and how one is seen. This culture is further accentuated by social media and the urge to make everything visible and viral. From Facebook to Instagram, the media technologies serve the interests of those who want to be seen and to be liked. And been seen is all about been seen wearing what is class and defining But I have been surrounded by females.
My mother and grandmother were significant influence on my upbringing. And then I have seven fashion aware sisters. I had several dates while growing up as a youth and university undergraduate. I have been married to my wife now for thirty-three years, and I have two vibrant, grown and elegant daughters. I cannot by this fact be called an expert on women affairs. I cannot even be said to have any understanding of the mind of a woman, despite my being surrounded by them at every turn of my life. But that is not to say that I have not observed the twists and turns of fashion consciousness of women. Initially, and this is so for almost every man, we encounter women’s fashion at the point of exasperation: the family needs to go out for an occasion (or just daddy and mummy alone), and the husband or the father had to wait endlessly for the wife or the daughters (or all of them together) to put finishing touches to their grand fashion.
The finishing touches commence right from the bathroom which must take like an hour, and then sitting behind the cosmetic table becomes so interminable that, as I suspect, couples must often begin their marriage quarrels from this point. The powder, the lipsticks and rouges, the jewelries, and so on, must all be put exquisitely in place. It is a different ball game entirely to choose the dress to wear, with the idea of the occasion in mind and some color code. The shoes must match in perfect color combination. And yes…we must not forget the choice of a handbag!
The woman’s handbag has always been a point of complexity for me. It is certainly a bag of mystery and mystification. The funny thing is that it seems to mystify the women themselves. How many of us have watched in stupefaction how a woman searches in consternation for a ringing phone in her bag? Of course, by the time the phone is rescued from the inner recess of the handbag, the call would have rung out. And yet, funny again, the phone goes right back into its confinement, until the next call.
How many men have not wondered about the fashion trajectory that ensures that the handbag keeps growing and growing in space until it becomes what it is presently—a large yawning blackhole that has the capacity, like its celestial counterpart, to swallow a cornucopia of everything, from cosmetics to money! Thus, when I recently stumbled on Kathryn Eisman’s witty book, How to Tell a Woman by Her Handbag (2008), I knew my reflections about women, fashion and the handbag have not been in vain. For her, to know a woman is to first know her choice of bags or purses. To some extent, that is a true assessment. Has anyone ever seen a fully dressed woman without a purse or a handbag of any sort? But the handbag you see with a woman is not just a carry on; rather, it is an expression of tastes, perspectives, and preferences. And all these, for Eisman, speaks to the type of handbag chosen in terms of color, size or shape. While one woman could be a pink kind of person, another could have a preference for purple or wine-colored handbag with floral pattern. A third woman would rather love a plain but big magenta handbag with strings. Handbags come in all sizes and shapes and color. The female handbag is a funny, exasperating but serious point of reflection on who and what a woman is.
How then does one plumb the depth of a woman’s sense of identity from a mere analysis of a small but roomy blue purse, or a big and yellow handbag? In a practical sense, handbags are functional! You therefore have to agree with A. A. Gill, “As handbags get ever more absurdly large, so they need to carry more stuff to validate the expense of this huge trunk with chains, buckles and padlocks on.” The large space allows for many things, from cosmetics to even laptop. In this sense, a woman’s fashion sense is also a pragmatic consideration. For a woman to keep herself handy, she needs a lot of things and stuffs. She needs the car keys, phones, diaries or books, baby stuffs, the cosmetics for regular retouching of the face, and so many more ingredients. But beyond the functionality, handbags speak more to something else.
Matthew Williamson, the British fashion designer, gives us a hint when he says about his handbag collection: “I wanted to create a collection of leather handbags which would not only reflect the brand’s DNA but also appeal to a busy cosmopolitan woman.” With his handbags, Williamson is targeting a particular identity. Handbags, a subsegment of fashion, therefore are a specific marker of specific identity. Rachel Zoe, the American fashion designer, says it best: “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” I am however much intrigued about the relationship between a woman’s handbag and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Maslow, there are three levels of human needs—the basic, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. Basic needs reference the physiological need for water, food, and shelter. The psychological needs speak to human demands for relationship, accomplishment and esteem.
And the last level is the imperative of self-actualization which everyone, human being, seeks as the culmination of what our lives amount to. There is a possibility that one might want to assign a woman’s handbag to the highest level of self-actualization. But that will be a gross mistake in the assessment of the cross-class status of the handbag. Even though the handbag is a class material, it also defies class and status. There are different types of handbags for different types of people, from the extremely poor to the extremely wealthy.
But then, this implies, contrary to our expectation, that the handbag is present at every stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right from being a minor, a girl is socialized into the societal fashion consciousness. She also needs a school bag which gradually grows and metamorphoses into a handbag. A handbag can carry essential needs from food items to an inhaler. All women then gradually arrive at that stage when carrying a fashionable handbag becomes a badge of belonging. At this point, no party or event is complete without it. By the time a woman reaches the point at which her self-esteem is being consolidated, the handbag is equally present. At this point, the self is almost already fully aware of what it wants, and what it wants to be. The self is already adequately apprised of its possibilities.
The self, that is, has already created a picture of itself in a way that could be reflected to the society. And the handbag, as a small but infinitely significant fashion accessory, therefore becomes a point of that reflection. At this point, when a woman reaches for a handbag, it would not just be any handbag. Whether poor or rich, such a woman must be guided by her sense of who she is and what she wants. There is also a worrisome level at which the love for the handbag as a marker of the self’s image of itself also constitutes a slide into narcissism. In 2013, Steven Morrissey, the English singer and animal right campaigner, launched an attack on Beyoncé.
According to him, “The rhino is now more or less extinct, and it’s not because of global warming or shrinking habitats. It’s because of Beyoncé’s handbags.” Here, we are called to place in discourse a woman’s need for handbag to define her sense of worth and sense of self, as against a species of animals and their own right to existence. While for a wealthy woman, there is a need for a handbag made of rhino’s thick skin. To arrive at this point, a woman must have iterated her worth and esteem over many years. But then a rhino must die to be able to make such handbags. This narcissistic understanding of one’s self slides easily into what philosophers and ethicists have called speciesism, a bias in favor of the members of the human species against members of the non-human species. So, when next you see a woman with a handbag, be mindful that you are not just seeing a large, spacious and multipurpose container for a variety of stuffs. On the contrary, you are seeing a complex fashion item that speaks to how women perceive and define themselves. Men therefore need to reconsider: your spouse’s handbag collection is not just a mere passing fashion fad. Rather, that collection has been speaking about her understanding of herself. And we need to take notice.
Prof Olaopa is retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.