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Entries in handbag (46)


The Politics of Accessories and Elegance

Time was that to be truly fashionable, a lady’s accessories all had to match, and the materials they were made from had to be appropriate for the occasion and time of day. Happily, we no longer live in such restrictive times, and today looking matchy-matchy is a horrible insult, a death knell to any pretentions to style.

Looking backwards to the hey-dey of matchy-matchiness, the 1940s and 50s, I can do no better than to quote Genevieve Anotine Dariaux, French style guru, once derectrice at Nina Ricci, and author of the famous book A Guide to Elegance, first published in 1964:

‘The accessories worn with an outfit – gloves, hat, shoes, and handbag – are among the most important elements of an elegant appearance. A modest dress or suit can triple its face value when it is worn with an elegant hat, bag, gloves, and shoes, while a designer’s original can lose much of its prestige if its accessories have been carelessly selected.’

Quite the opposite is true today, when every fashionista rich or poor mixes new with vintage, high with low, with seemingly at times a particular delight in clashing as much as possible.

Elegant woman at Longchamp, Anonymous, 1947 (from ‘Parisiennes’, Flammarion 2007)

Seasonal Sets

Dariaux continues to elaborate on accessories, stating it is indispensable to own a complete set of accessories in black, and if possible, also brown plus beige shoes and a beige straw bag for summer. Ideally one would have every set suitable for sport, and the other dressy. Dariaux is filled with dismay when she sees a woman carrying an alligator handbag with a dressy ensemble, simply because she wishes to get good wear out of such an expensive item. (Has Dariaux not heard of the cost per wear equation?) ‘Alligator is strictly for sports or travel, shoes as well as bags, and this respected reptile should be permitted to retire every evening at 5pm.’

bright coloured shoes should only be worn under electric lights with a long or short evening dress

She has similar damning words for bright coloured shoes, which ‘should only be worn under electric lights with a long or short evening dress’.

All White is Not Alright

White shoes should never be seen on a city street – except for a tropical city, and even then only in summer, and only with a white dress. White handbags are impermissible except for the beach and summer resorts, but provincial in the city, even at the height of summer. Today fashion editors love to advocate white for winter, and I love it. Well truthfully, I love white anytime.

White handbags are impermissible except for the beach and summer resorts …


But what does Dariaux say of gloves? They are best in neutral shades, and the most elegant of all are glacé kid. Suede and antelope are her second choices. Surprisingly, she gives good-quality thicker nylon gloves the thumbs-up.

She also believes gloves ought to be devoid of trimming, which I don’t at all agree with, while very long black gloves are the most elegant to wear with evening gowns. I own dozens of pairs in many colours and materials, even own a pair or two of crocheted lace and transparent nylon, which are both particularly despicable to Dariaux. Stylishly trimmed gloves I think are fun, and even an elegant woman can have fun sometimes!

The entrance to the Paris Ritz on place Vendôme, Anonymous, c. 1948 (from ‘Parisiennes’, Flammarion 2007)

The Politics of Fashion and Elegance

Today of course most of us don’t wear any of our accessories in our day-to-day lives because they are ‘proper’ or traditional, but simply because we enjoy them. And of course the definition of elegance has changed slightly from Dariaux’s day when it was a stifling; it still means timeless chic in most lexicons, but there is a little more leeway for wit and daring, especially when it is employed with restraint.

In 1958, Claire McCardell, an American designer of the same era as Genevieve Dariaux, says:

‘Accessories are the signatures of your special tastes, clues to the type of woman you like being. Each is an idea in itself and you will quickly learn that you can’t wear too many ideas at the same time.’

This is permission to experiment a little more generous than that of Dariaux. The latter’s restrictive rules seem ludicrous to modern ears, but it wasn’t she who laid the law down: those fashion bills were passed with Christian Dior’s New Look in 1947, and the entire world imposed them on women who held any pretension to elegance, glamour – and worse than that: womanliness.

Unpublished variant of a cover image for American Vogue, bu Erwen Blumenfeld, 1950

Marnie Fogg, editor of Fashion: The Whole Story (Thames and Hudson, 2013) in the section ‘Daytime Decorum’ explains in a nutshell:

‘It was a perfect storm of events that resulted in the housewife of the 1950s becoming deified. Targeted by government policies, the fashion industry and advertisers, both she and her home were buffed, groomed and venerated. Liberated from the privations of wartime rationing, her clothing celebrated femininity with strict fashion discipline. A façade of perfection had to be upheld at all costs; to leave the house without a hat was little short of insurrection.’

Alligator is correctly worn for travel or sport, according to Genevieve Dariaux. Wenda Rogerson, by Norman Parkinson, Vogue 1951Women’s liberation stalled after World War II, when American politicians advocated the return of women to their former role of homemakers so that homecoming servicemen would have jobs to return to. Instead, it was a woman’s job to be the perfect housewife. The social, moral and economic stability of the United States was entirely ‘dependent on men returning to their role as head of the household. Fashion played a significant role in this process by restoring the notion of traditional feminine clothing and making the business of dressing complex, with style diktats for every social and domestic function.’ [Ibid] It would take the next generation to change the world in the 1960s, when the fashion industry was turned on its head.

Matching v. Monochromatic

While I feel quite passé if my accessories match too well, I do think it fun to wear an entirely monochromatic outfit, especially all white. Black is my only exception for I find it dreary if it is not leavened with at least one other neutral. Kim Kardashian as we all know is very fond of wearing all beige, but I think it’s just because she likes that it makes her look naked.

Monochromatic outfits can be quite startling and eye-catching when one has become accustomed to the current popular trend for mismatching, which, with the encouragement of the fashion industry, many positively gorge on and glory in. Clash your prints! Mix and match! These are the clarion cries of this movement, and so often it is not done sympathetically. Wearing all one colour can in fact be soothing to the eye for just that reason.

I do not dispute that there were beautiful fashions in the post-war era, but today we have many more options than such rigorous and stifling rules and regulations. We can have fun, experiment – matchy-matchy or not according to personal preference – for even if we do commit some grave sartorial error we can take heart: the Fashion Police still can’t put us in jail for insurrection.

Photos: April 2016


These Shoes Were (Not) Made for Bushwalking

I don’t just dance in my red shoes, I go bushwalking in them! What insanity is this? I hear you ask. It was unintentional. I went on an outing with my three sisters to the ranges, ostensibly for lunch at a French café, and wore an outfit for a perfect summer’s day, including a favourite red silk dress, a straw bag bought in Spain, and a brand new pair of laser-cut red heels.

We did have lunch, but also decided to take in the sights, and a little detour to walk in a garden … which ended up being at the bottom of a very big hill. Unsurprisingly, bandaids were needed at the end of this effort. Still, I looked good doing it!

Photos: February 2014


A Little Lunchtime Miracle

A couple months ago I was attending an Opening Night during the week, and as I usually do on these occasions, I wore something a little special to work: a favourite red sequinned vintage 60s top. (Of course, I could have carried it and worn more conventional daywear in the office, but I can get away with this kind of outrageousness working at a theatre.) By mid-morning however, I realised I had forgotten to bring an evening bag with me, and I certainly did not want to spend the night carrying my unmatching giant tote bag around.

I decided to make a quick trip to the local thrift store at lunchtime in search of a evening bag. I didn’t have high expectations – I just wanted something respectable and inexpensive, as I already own so many evening bags I didn’t care to spend a lot so unnecessarily. I intended to donate it right back, or give it away to some lucky recipient. My work colleagues, hearing about this hopeful mission, scoffed humorously and wished me luck.

I decided to make a quick trip to the local thrift store at lunchtime in search of a evening bag.

In due course I ventured off on the trail of this unholy grail, and upon a thorough search of a Sacred Heart Opportunity Shop, by divine miracle I came upon a quite inoffensive pleated-look black satin clutch bag. And amazingly the ticket price stated a mere $6 – what luck! (Or it could even have been $4; I can’t quite recall.)

But that was not all: not only was it a completely innocuous clutch bag, there was a convenient cord strap curled up inside. I don’t actually like little bags on very long straps, so I carried it as a clutch that evening. I was extremely glad to cloak my heavy tote, and my colleagues were all very impressed with my thrifting prowess. Truly, a last-minute lunchtime miracle – saved by the bell, as it were. Now … whom can I fob it off on?

Photos: July 2016


True Crocodile Tears

If you’ve been reading fashion magazines for a little while, you will have come across – at least once – some fashion editor’s declaration that owning a crocodile leather bag (preferably the Hermès Kelly, or the Birkin at a pinch) is the pinnacle of style perfection to which any self-respecting fashionista must aspire.

The Kelly bag was named after Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. [Click through to read about the history of the Kelly bag in greater detail.)Why is crocodile leather considered such a luxury item, I wondered? Is it because these giant reptiles are so lethal that once upon a time dispossessing them of their hide was to endanger life and limb? A little research leads me to discover that though these days crocodiles are farmed, it does not necessarily negate the danger. Of course it is to luxury goods manufacturers’ benefit to tout the beauty and exclusivity of exotic-skin products … just as the ivory from elephant tusks were once so prized so that elephants became critically endangered.

A modern Kelly bag in orange crocodile leather – but what is the truth that lies beneath this exotic skin?A very little research also leads me to discover the horrific conditions some crocodiles suffer under – not all are humanely stunned before they are killed. (If you have the stomach for it, read more on the Daily Mail.) Whatever your stance on the wearing of leather and fur, it must be acknowledged that cowhides at least are a by-product of the meat industry, whereas the market for crocodile meat is very small. Crocodiles are farmed and slaughtered exclusively for their skin, which is then reproduced as $40,000 handbags by designer brands of the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada – and they will accept only the top ten per cent of crocodile skins. To help prevent abuse, each crocodile skin needs a certificate proving it is not in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [].

Well, I am very happy and relieved to report that my crocodile accessories are vintage.

An average handbag can be crafted from up to two crocodile skins (for each of which a farmer may receive $600). The wait for an Hermès Birkin bag can be years-long, but if you’re very impatient and have the cash lying around, you could possibly pick one up on eBay for between $39,000–$150,000. “There are women who don’t care about money that love the beautiful things,” said Gianluca Brozzetti, CEO of fashion house Cavalli. “Demand for crocodile and alligator is large because I think it is one of the trends that never ends. It is a classic.” []


Well, I am very happy and relieved to report that my crocodile accessories are vintage. The tote bag, which I myself bought many years ago on eBay to use as a shopper (though lately I have been carrying it every day as my work bag) cost me the princely sum of $40. The tiny purse, which fits just enough plastic cards, banknotes and a few coins, was also bought secondhand just a few months ago, from a thrift store for – wait for it – $6. I love it more for its diminutive size than the fact that it is crafted from luxury leather. They are both a little worn, but I don’t care. I love both items because they are pre-loved, and I am glad and proud that I have not added to the burden of tears this world holds already.

Photos: July 2016


No Regret Purchasesssss

When I spotted this snakeskin navy handbag in a thrift store a couple months ago, I found it irresisssstible. It is vintage – Fifties, I am guessing – and in beautiful condition. I walked around the store carrying it knowing full well that I did not at all need it, but I was unwilling to abandon it to the indifferent care of some perfect stranger.

Once upon a time the colour alone would have put me off – I used to dislike navy because it was too corporate; I associated it with conservative skirt suits worn by severe businesswomen. However, something unexpected happened to me a couple of years ago: the scales dropped from my eyes and suddenly navy was sophisticated, elegant and alluring to me!

… suddenly navy was sophisticated, elegant and alluring to me!

There is no label inside, but it is ssssertainly well-made and constructed, with snakeskin even trimming the pockets inside. And the fact that it is snakeskin does away with any conservative connotations. It is a ssserious handbag; discreet; for a woman and not a girl; and though I have not worn it out yet, I have no regretssss! There are some things that are just too beautiful to leave behind.

Photo: April 2016