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My All-American Bargain Handbag, Assessed

Recently I was in lower Manhattan, when one glamorous-looking woman made a remark to the similarly style-conscious woman she was with about how everybody has that bag. They were looking at me! At my handbag.

By “handbag” I mean this $39 camouflage tote bag. As the “backordered” note suggests, everyone does indeed have this bag. What I’m trying to figure out is, why? How did a tote bag that doesn’t even advertise the fact that you buy expensive but flattering yoga pants, become A Thing?

I can speak to the bag’s practical qualities, which are impressive. This one bag has carried, albeit not all at once:

-My computer

-My groceries

-My not-teacup-sized dog

And in all cases save the canine example, it zips! Which is useful, because when you go around with a $39 purse, you’re definitely the person pickpockets find most interesting.

Yes, the Board of Health would probably give my bag (or at least the bagels contained therein) a Grade Pending rating, but the interior material at least looks as if it could be spray-cleaned, like a countertop. While I do own regular-adult-woman handbags as well, this has become the default.

All of this is, I realize, an explanation for why someone who genuinely DGAF where fashion is concerned would go the zip-tote route. But why is it chic? (It is. Trust.)

One interpretation is political: A utilitarian, unisex, compartment-free, vaguely but non-specifically militaristic purse-replacement speaks to a moment when women are fed up with trying to please.

That, or it feels, in fashion parlance, ‘fresh’ to have a non-splurge handbag. While the traditional leather purse is still out there, and still a necessity for many situations, something is happening with bags similar to what did with shoes a few years back, when suddenly beige platform stilettos went out, to be replaced by (still-ubiquitous) white sneakers. If a garment or accessory used to be special, saved-up-for, now it’s cheap. Conversely, if an item used to be an afterthought, that’ll now be The Thing, because fashion is like that. Thus, I suppose, why business-wear slacks and leggings have swapped prices.

Maybe it’s egalitarian, ‘bubble’-transcending feminism. Or maybe a bag is just a bag.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected] Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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