The Quest for the Perfect Bag

by Heather Schwedel

I live in a city, so I don’t need a car, and I won’t be buying a home anytime soon (or maybe ever), so the way I see it, the biggest spending decision that faces me for the foreseeable future is one that involves a purse.

I’ve dreamed of the platonic ideal of a purse for a while now. Maybe you want to stop me right here and point out that there is no one perfect purse, that no one bag can go from day to night and season to season so seamlessly. But I refuse to abandon my principles (yet). I am not a purse switcher. I want a purse that I can wear to work and to the nice(ish) bars where I’m spending my hypothetical Saturday nights, in winter and in summer, on the subway and in — I don’t know, if I get dropped off in one of those wooded areas where Carrie and Brody always ended up on Homeland, I want my purse to work there, too.

My whole system for staying organized in life hinges on this purse (the one purse to rule them all): I never lose my keys (knock on wood) because their spot is in my purse, and if I have more than one purse, then you can see how the system would break down. This system, unlike so many things in life, seems to work for me, so I am not about to turn the purse project into an opportunity to reconsider my whole system. The purse must fit into the existing system.

If we buy into the dichotomy that there are two types of women in the world, big purse women and small purse women, I’m the big purse type. I recognize that it’s infinitely more attractive to be a small purse type, to be, literally, someone without a lot of baggage, but according to the system, I need to carry a purse big enough to fit an umbrella in it at all times, so that’s that. Still, I resist my impulse to just put everything in a giant tote bag. A Longchamp bag? Never. I want a real proper lady’s purse. (And, to be completely honest, most days I will supplement my purse with an ugly utilitarian second bag anyway.) I know everyone likes to think they’re classy, but the bags I coveted really were classy, classic even.

I just read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, and in the fashion chapter she discusses “investment bags.” Moran ultimately decides that investment bags aren’t worth it, that £45 bags from Topshop are the way to go. A younger me would have agreed with her, but here’s the thing about £45 bags from Topshop, or $30 bags from H&M, or even $60 bags from Banana Republic: they break. It’s not that I want to spend a lot of money on a purse. It’s just that I’ve been burned before. I’ve had a lot of purses in my life that I’ve become deeply attached to that have ultimately let me down. Maybe you’ll have a good year together, and the $30 or whatever will ultimately be money well spent, but if you’re like me, that year won’t be enough. You’ll want the next bag to be one that lasts. Once you’ve brought your $50 fake leather bag to a leather repair shop and been laughed off the premises, you’ll start to think that maybe spending more will help you avoid future heartbreaks.

I want to spend more than I have before, but I don’t want to go crazy. I mean, yes, I spent enough time browsing Kate Spade and Tory Burch bags online that they’re still following me around the Internet in banner ads, and I am still thinking about this one time I touched a Chloe bag in a store.

I asked a very savvy friend for bag advice, and she said, “I would feel fine spending $200 once a year on a bigger bag (that I would carry to work) and maybe a little less often for a smaller bag (that I would wear most other times), but I know people who spend over a grand, and it’s like, WUT R U DOING.”

Everyone has their own personal threshold. A few months ago, I complimented a friend’s bag and she said that it was nothing special, just a Cole Haan. With all apologies to this friend, who is lovely, my eyes bugged because, excuse me, Cole Haan bags cost hundreds of dollars! I’ve had to spend several months, maybe years at this point, working up the courage to spend that much on a bag. Certainly, there were times during this stupid quest that I thought, jeez, if I’d just bought a purse when I first started thinking about it, I would have had one for X months now, and think how much money I would have saved. Thankfully, buying a purse doesn’t work like that. Stalling on buying a monthly subway pass and paying for a bunch of individual rides while I weigh whether or not I’ll use the monthly, yes, but buying a purse, no. This process could actually go on forever.

It didn’t go on forever. A few days after Christmas, I walked into a store that was having a sale and got a bag that had originally cost $300 for about $160. The only thing is the black and tan bags weren’t on sale, so the bag is: purple. This wasn’t part of the original plan, and it actually makes me so nervous that my new purse, my platonic ideal of a purse, is still sitting in its shopping bag like Kevin McCallister’s never-opened roller blades. Purple is actually my favorite color, and on some level, it will please me to pull my purple phone, my purple umbrella, my purple iPod, and so on, out of my purple purse, but in other ways I have failed, because there’s no way a purple purse will match everything.

Maybe we’ll be happy together anyway.

Heather Schwedel is currently in the market for a wallet.

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