And before we even start, I’m telling you now I am not going to mention Dame Edith Evans.
There was a most fascinating and wonderful inspirational speaker on the radio the other day from the University of Kent. Professor Julia Twigg (with Christina Buse) has made a study of the role and significance of handbags in the lives of elderly women with dementia; examining how life may contract to the expressions of personality and memory centring on a bag as the mind slowly loses its own ability to carry information and characteristics. Meanwhile, a cherished friend of the bosom from the world of scent writes of how she sees her vast collection of bags as extensions of herself, never just as objects or accessories. A very good reason (as with a perfume wardrobe) why she needs so many.
I have always admired the idea of a bag because I like to have a great many companionable things to hand at all times: practical stuff like glasses, keys, Polos, pens and painkillers. And also the more talismanic items such as family photos (“ancestor worship”), favourite postcards & books, scent, amulets against the Evil Eye, paper ikons, medallions and so on. So I cart all this about in a series of nylon and plastic carriers from the supermarket; or latterly in a rather smart orange canvas bag provided at a perfume conference. As with shoes I’ve never had much luck in finding a smart bag not too egregious for elderly male use; I don’t want one of those leather patchwork things in shades of maroon, magenta and dung. In any case, I think the assemblage and presentation of a decent handbag is above all a female and feminine art.
Women’s bags are much more imaginatively designed, coloured and all the rest of it. They have the added advantage of smelling delicious: and not just when a bottle of Shalimar, Giorgio or Fidgi has disastrously leaked therein. Or so I have always found during rare forays into bags when left in charge briefly by intimate friends and relations, or asked to delve in to find a pair of spectacles. When very small I was devoured by curiosity as to what was inside these bags, an itch which landed me in very hot water as “little boys NEVER EVER look in ladies’ bags!” Many years later I read some piece of popular psychology which claimed that boys who peer into handbags most generally grow up into lifelong bachelors. An extraordinary thing to say!
But my grandmother always encouraged my natural inquisitiveness and it was in her bag that I learned to appreciate that delicious texture and scent of worn soft leather, silk, suede, pressed face powder, wispy lawn hankies, sweet waxy lipstick, 10 Players, burned matches and money. Paper money (rather greasy) and old coppers used to have a very definite smell, not so much now that cash changes hands quicker. Then there were all these little folders and inner pockets and secret compartments, zipped and popped and studded and buttoned; and filled with looking glasses, bills and well-worn letters and lists – ” tonic water, lettuce, library, frozen peas”. Really I suppose my grandmother was of the first generation of women to need a bag. Before the turn of the 20th century the folds of ladies’ ample skirts were full of pockets; keys were kept on a chatelaine; no decent female admitted to smoking or making up. There was no need for a bag. Hankies and cachous were tucked into bangles, up sleeves or into the decolletage or muff. The most a girl needed was a tiny mesh purse for pin money.
Miss Nathalie Lecroc has made a good living illustrating the contents of bags; as varied as their owners, her pictures are riveting to pore over. Various perfumers have produced candles which imitate the scent of a good handbag but I think no one has made a wearable perfume to wear which performs the trick. Having said this, I have always found during our lengthy relationship that Caron’s seductive Parfum Sacre is divinely “sac a main” in style. According to Caron lore it is a blend of their notorious Poivre and the swooning Fete des Roses. What I smell is the most expensive suede evening bag with faintly damp rose-scented face powder spilled on a thick silk lining with accents of cinnamon, coriander, amber and musk oozing in from crimson-nailed hands soaked in a lifetime of scented oils. Irresistible.