My Kingdom for a Purse
Handbags and milestones
Last week, Lucette Lagnado—Wall Street Journal reporter and, as I’ve said before, brilliant memoirist—filed a terrific report on famed designer Judith Leiber’s plans to buy back her own handbags for a museum she’s building in the Hamptons. In true Lagnado style, the piece was one part news and two parts zeitgeist-y illumination—in this case, a window into the surprisingly meaningful implications of a fashion item beloved by women of a certain age, socioeconomic class, and maybe even ethnicity:
Lori Shabtai, a New York commercial real estate executive, says she bought her first Leiber as a bride-to-be 29 years ago, and since then, her ritual is purchasing at least one Judith Leiber a year. She associates each with a special occasion: her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, where she carried a beige snakeskin; a black clutch with large crystals was for a big date.
“Judith Leiber has been through all of that with us,” says Ms. Shabtai.
To highlight the generational gap, Lagnado also quoted a 26-year-old fashion writer named Jessica Misener musing snarkily about the silliness of Leiber’s trademark bags, which have manifested as peacocks, tomatoes, Fabergé eggs, Socks the White House cat, and more. But Leiber also offered other, less organically-inspired creations—simple animal-skin bags, in muted colors, topped with delicately jeweled clasps and spare chains.
My mother had two of these, and, as with Shabtai, for her they have life-cycle associations: The first bag, a black snakeskin pouch, was purchased before my sister’s wedding; the second, a beige clutch with a pale pink quartz clasp, my mother bought for herself before my bat mitzvah. And so, as I read the piece, I realized I maintained my own affection for Leiber’s kooky totes—a feeling that, depressingly, punted me out of Misener’s generation and into … my mother’s?
Not even, it seems. When I called my mother to commiserate about those unsentimental young people, I didn’t get quite the response I was looking for. “I’d sell mine!” she exclaimed, upon which she promptly matriculated from a decade of refusing to learn how to use her cellphone and texted me pictures of her two Leiber bags, along with a message: “Ask Judith if she wants these back!”
I was stunned. Forget about my sister—it’s every daughter for herself here—didn’t she have any nostalgia for my bat mitzvah?
“Alana,” she said, wearily, “I don’t have the dress I wore that day anymore, and I certainly don’t have the weight I lost.”
She added, “It’s just a pocketbook, honey.”