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The first women arrived at 3 a.m. that November morning, and by 10 a.m., nearly 700 had formed into a line that snaked along the side of C-Mart. The sale had been advertised for months— a “famous name department store” was liquidating its designer handbag stock. Many had sacrificed hours of sleep, driven hundreds of miles, to get to Joppatowne to claim their share of the spoils.

So when the store’s ticket-numbering system revealed itself to be flawed— when women who showed up late gained entry before the early birds, then paraded past with their new Prada, Gucci, Chanel— the early birds pushed and shoved and complained. Then they rushed the handbag section.

“Move back,” the C-Mart employees yelled from their perches on tables. But, as The Sun reported in an article headlined “Pandemonium among the purses,” the crowd couldn’t be contained until 20 Harford County sheriff’s deputies arrived.

When I read that Sun article last fall, what surprised me most was not the cost of the handbags— some were originally $2,000 and up— or the size of the crowd— at its largest, it numbered 1,000. It was the fact that one of the deputies found it unusual that women were fighting over purses.

Doesn’t he know we live in the Age of the Handbag? Doesn’t he know, as Daphne Merkin wrote in The New York Times last winter, that “the mania for bags … defines our acquisition-mad cultural moment as surely as the tulip fever that raged through 17th-century Holland defined the burghers of Amsterdam”? And, even if he’s not aware of the current craze, didn’t his mama teach him an essential rule for survival in the world? Do not get between a woman and her handbag.

In the beginning, only men carried bags. Women seldom went anywhere, and if they did, they didn’t have much to carry. But as upper-class women began assuming roles outside the home, they began needing bags to tote their gear (working-class women had always needed bags, but working-class women don’t dictate fashion). By the 1900s, the handbag was an established female accessory that most women viewed similarly to shoes: They bought one good leather bag and used it until it wore out. Or, if they were women of means, they bought one handbag each year— in 1955 it might have been the Chanel 2.55, that classic quilted purse with the luxe gold chain— and wore it everyday.

That was more or less the trend until the 1980s, says Irene Jakubiak, editor-in-chief of Accessories magazine and a 30-year accessories veteran. “All of a sudden, people started making bags out of wool, cotton, canvas, microfiber—instead of just leather,” says Jakubiak. “Handbags became more affordable. And women began buying a wardrobe of them, buying them like they bought scarves and jewelry.”

Because fashion thrives on unattainability, as soon as handbags became more affordable and accessible, there arose an almost instant backlash intent on making them less affordable and accessible. Enter the It Bag of the 1990s. “There was this sudden rush to create a signature handbag,” says Jakubiak. “Suddenly handbags became a status symbol.”

More than a decade later, the It Bag has morphed into a menagerie of “status handbags” that are so important— i.e., so profitable— that when Louis Vuitton presented its fall 2005 collection, its designers moved the photographers documenting the show to the sides of the runway, “eye level with the handbags, because that’s what sells,” as one designer said. Indeed, according to Accessories magazine’s 2005 Census Report, handbags generated more than $6 million in sales last year, making them the hottest selling item of women’s fashion merchandise.

Talk to bag believers and you’re sure to hear one story again and again: “I can wear the plainest jeans and T-shirt, but if I have a designer bag, everyone notices me.” The moral of this tale is that though the Fendi spy bag may seem dear, it’s actually cheap compared to other status symbols— a Lexus, a Rolex.

For as little as $2,000, you can tell everyone, without ever opening your mouth, that you’re powerful; that you have good taste; that you possess disposable income; that you’re “in the know.” It’s no coincidence, after all, that both home style dominatrix Martha Stewart and rapper Lil’ Kim strolled into their respective court dates carrying Birkin bags— the queen of all status handbags, introduced by Hermés in 1984 and quite difficult to procure, even if you can afford the cost, which starts at $30,000. (Even Samantha on “Sex and the City” couldn’t get her finely manicured hands on one.)

As the bag-brawlers at C-Mart know, a status handbag is so much more than a purse. It’s a piece of the cultural rock. Or, as James Twichell, author of “Living it Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury” puts it, the status handbag is a “snobject.”

And yet, nearly every woman in Baltimore— nearly every woman in the nation—- carries a handbag, and most do not recognize a Fendi or Balenciaga, much less have one. They tote no-name leather satchels purchased at Macy’s or Marshall’s, designer knock-offs snatched up in Chinatown, leather-look-alikes thrown into the Target shopping cart with the shampoo and detergent.

These are the handbags that interest me most— the vernacular ones. A purse for which there is no hype— a purse that offers no cultural clues— reveals more personal clues. It reveals a woman’s relative sassiness or practicality; her desire for structure or freedom; her sense of herself as corporate or feminine or powerful or sexy. In a study published in June in the Journal of Individual Differences, a group of German psychologists took photographs of 60 men and women at a rest stop, photographed their cars separately then asked a group of college students to match the drivers with their cars. The students matched correctly 70 percent of the time. But if the challenge were to match women with their purses, I bet I could score correctly 90 percent of the time— less because I’m a purse psychic than because purses, perhaps because they are held close to the body, worn on the body, are even more reflective than cars.

That’s why, if given the chance to conduct my own handbag study, I’d design something much more extensive than a matching game, something that would allow me to penetrate the dark interiors of as many handbags as possible. I’d stroll the corridors of Towson Town Center asking women to empty their bags into a box. (Yes, I’d have to pay them a lot or spin a convincing pitch about furthering the cause of humanity.) Then, after hundreds of hours of research, I’d report how many handbags contained a half-used tissue; a tampon loosed from its wrapper; a movie ticket stub; an unmailed letter; a tiny notebook; a vial of life-saving medicine; a package of condoms; a gun. Handbags— status and no-status alike— contain a private collection of artifacts that, taken together, provide a snapshot of a particular woman’s particular way of living.  As Frances Ayers wrote, after studying handbags for a year as part of her Edith Hamilton scholarship project at The Bryn Mawr School, “A woman is her handbag.”

When I was a child, my mother carried a matronly beige leather shoulder bag with probably 30 different pockets. Gum, safety pin, Band-aid— I just asked my mother and she told me which pocket contained it. It was no use searching for it myself. It was not my purse; I did have not a map of it in my mind. It is this personal, this umbilical, connection between a woman and her handbag that causes the Uncomfortable Husband/Boyfriend Forced to Hold His Wife/Girlfriend’s Handbag While She Shops phenomenon. It’s also this connection that makes it ill-advised to buy a handbag for another woman (I’ve done it twice and struck out both times.) And it’s this connection that makes the prospect of renting a handbag, now possible through http://www.bagborroworsteal.com and other sites on the Web, so weird. As one handbag expert told me, “Renting someone else’s handbag would be like renting their underwear.”

This Fall, the bigger the handbag, the better. And the more embellishment, the better, too. Skins will be big— pony, leopard, python— and so will chocolate leather, says George Sakellaris of Handbags and the City, where the handbags start at about $250 and go up to $2,000. A table in his store holds a stack of magazines— Us, O.K., In Style— tagged with stickies that mark pages on which various stars have been photographed holding bags he sells. “Even my more mature woman clients know which stars are carrying which bags,” he says. “Women really want what the stars are carrying.”

In Sakellaris’ store, status handbags are displayed on shelves like museum pieces. Kooba, Isabella Fiore, Juicy Couture— they’re so artful, with their tassels and metal studs and careful, careful stitching. And yet they’re not really so different than the purses crammed onto a rack at Target or exposed under the florescent lights at C-Mart. One day all will hang on a wrist or shoulder, safeguarding a woman’s private, silly, precious things.

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