Living in a culturally, socially, and economically relevant city like New York, one is inarguably exposed to a plethora of “personas”, so to speak, from the get-go. Whether it is a celebrity, model, businessman, construction worker, soccer Mom, or unemployed writer, most New Yorkers take on the day with a focus on who they would like to be or who they’ve already become. Those who have already “made it” work to maintain their already accomplished image using internal (such as personality and taste) and external (namely dress and appearance) forms of self-presentation. Take Sex and the City actress, Sarah Jessica Parker (pictured above), for instance. Despite her notably casual appearance, she nonetheless holds a powerful presence through her designer attire and conspicuous sunglasses. To the average onlooker, she may be just another fashion-forward New Yorker, but to the culturally attuned eye, she is none other than trend-setting actress Sarah Jessica Parker. Others, such as an aspiring model, strive to mentally and physically impersonate the group to which they hope to belong, using a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Take a look at the crowd of women above, for example. While none of these women are in fact professional models, the way in which they represent themselves may trick the uncultured New Yorker into believing otherwise. Thus, through representation, or the methodical construction of our most idealized presentation of self to a carefully targeted audience, one can essentially became someone they’re not or dissociate from the person that they are. Therefore, in using this definition of representation, I would like analyze the way in which handbags allow us to represent ourselves to specified groups within society.
As Fred Davis expresses in his piece, “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” there are various ways in which clothing works to reinforce and hinder certain notions of representation. Either knowingly or unknowing, we all follow an often times ambiguous set of rules that govern what we wear and how we present ourselves to particular groups within society. This clothing code, so to speak,
“Draws on the conventional visual and tactile symbols of culture [and] does so allusively, ambiguously, and inchoately, so that the meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations of the code’s key terms are forever shifting or ‘in progress,’” (Davis 149).
Simply put, what is considered socially and culturally significant to one person depends entirely on the time period, the context, the individuals within that society, the geographic location, and the culture itself. Thus, as Davis notes, what is meant by the signifier is often different than what is actually signified. Keeping the above in mind, let’s return to this idea of representation through handbags.
As mentioned above, the way in which we represent ourselves is often contingent upon the people that we’ve already become or the individuals that we aspire to be. Thus, for many, this identity is achieved through the representation of power by means of luxury goods. Men and women are therefore frequently involved in what theorist Thornstein Veblen calls conspicuous consumption, or the practice of purchasing “goods for reasons beyond their use value,” (Marwick 3). As Dr. Alice Marwick notes in her study, “Conspicuous and Authenticity: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption,” conspicuous consumption is often used to indicate higher status through expensive purchases. However, as Davis has already pointed out, the meaning of goods is often reinterpreted and misconstrued based on the cultural, economic, and social understanding of the wearer and the perceiver. The way in which someone dresses and carries his or herself is often a good indicator of where he or she stands (or would like to stand) in the social hierarchy. Take the image of famed fashion blogger, Emily Schuman (pictured above). Through her casual yet fashion-forward attire, expensive-looking bag, and on trend fedora, Schuman inarguably represents someone worth noticing. Her professional and fashionable presentation thus gives her some semblance of power. However, put Schuman’s outfit on the image of the scantily clad woman below and she could likewise represent someone of influence. Therefore, it is not exclusively what one wears, but rather the way in which one wears something that determines the authenticity of his or her worth in society.
However, as Marwick reminds us, authenticity itself is not a black and white quality, but rather “a social judgment that is always made in distinction to something else,” (Marwick 12). Thus, an object’s authenticity is often dependent upon the wearer, the context, and the society in which the object is both worn and perceived. As researchers Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xaiver Dreze note in their study, “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods,” “anyone can own a purse, a watch, or a pair of shoes, but specific brands of purses, watches, and shoes are a distinguishing feature for certain classes of consumers,” (Han, Nunes, and Dreze 15). These consumers, they argue, can be divided into four separate categories based upon their need and desire for both wealth and status. Patricians, Parvenus, Poseurs, and Proletarians will thus represent themselves accordingly, using dress and luxury goods to associate with their preferred or assigned group, and distance themselves from the remaining categories.
At the top of the social hierarchy, Patricians are comfortable in both their wealth and status, and therefore tend to consume luxury discretely and inconspicuously. They would likely prefer the quiet FENDI leather baguette (pictured below) to the brand’s conspicuous FF Logo Roll Bag (pictured above). Parvenus, in contrast, would likely flock to the latter of the two bags, determined to dissociate from the Poseurs and Proletarians and resonate with the Patricians. While content financially, the Parvenus are insecure socially, and thus use flashy luxury items (like the FF Logo Roll Bag above) to enunciate their wealth and (hypothetical) status. The third class, as Han, Nunes, and Drezes describe, “are highly motivated to consume for the sake of status,” yet lack “the financial means to readily afford authentic luxury goods,” (Han, Nunes, and Drezes). Therefore, the Poseurs would be apt to purchasing the counterfeit FENDI FF Logo Roll Bag (pictured above) with the hope of emblemizing the wealthier Parvenus. Finally, the Proletarians, both lower in wealth and status, would neither seek to associate nor dissociate from any of the above classes, generally preferring to consume for purposes of practicality. They would hence purchase the Coach Madison Crosstown Bag (pictured below), or a bag of lesser quality and cost.
Thus, using the above information, what does ones handbag say about oneself? As mentioned above, the context, geographic location, culture, and individuals within the society itself, directly influence what one perceives to be culturally, economically, and socially relevant. Therefore, the way in which we dress and present (or would like to present) ourselves correlates with our society. Generally speaking, we often represent ourselves in carefully constructed ways in order to resonate with a particular group of people. However, due to the ambiguity of self-presentation, individuals frequently misconstrue the messages that we intend to give off through our dress. Furthermore, not all forms of representation are accurate, meaning it is up to the individual his or herself to determine the authenticity of a person based upon previous social judgments. Thus, using this information, I can deduce that we use handbags to represent our desired, rather than our actual, wealth and status to society. As demonstrated above, dress is a crucial component to ones apparent social and financial power. However, place a lower class woman in Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion-forward attire and add an inconspicuous FENDI Baguette, and she undeniably represents a Patrician. Conversely, put fashion-blogger, Emily Schuman in skimpy apparel (similar to the attire of the woman pictured above) and include a counterfeit FENDI Logo Roll Bag, and she suddenly resembles someone of the Poseur category. Therefore, while we may methodically construct ourselves to fit the mold of a certain social group, it is largely up to the individuals within society itself to validate both our status and worth.
Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. 148-58. Print.
Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 74.4 (2010): 15-30. Print.
Marwick, Alice. (2011). “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA.