Bag Ladies

The revenge of low-end merchandisers.

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A friend of mine took her 13-year-old daughter to the mall the other day to visit Aerie, a subsidiary of American Eagle that features lingerie for teens. (Yes, this is a legitimate business and not a Web site that the FBI is monitoring for predators.) But the panties her daughter purchased at the store were, my friend reported, a mere pretense. What her daughter really wanted was the Aerie shopping bag. My friend confided that she wanted one, too.

This seems to me to harbor great cultural significance. We have arrived at a new post-postmodern paradigm whose sign is the shopping bag.

In the postmodern paradigm, the container and the thing conatained began to compete for importance: inside and outside were at war. In the post-postmodern paradigm, the war has ended and the package has won. The allure of the shopping bag spells this out. It is a container for merchandise bought in order to acquire the sign for it. Not the sign of a lack, in Lacanian terms, but the sign of a lack that points to the sign of a lack in infinite regression. My friend’s daughter goes to Aerie to buy underwear she doesn’t want, so as to get the shopping bag that tells others to go to Aerie to buy underwear they don’t want, so as to etc., etc. Believe me, if you think about it too closely, you’ll get a headache — not just the mis en abime part but the idea of all that underwear which teenage girls don’t have room in their drawers for.
But there’s more going on here than unwanted thongs. The shopping bag is also the site of a mall-located class struggle: the revenge of low-end merchandisers on high-end merchandisers.

Explanation: People have coveted luxury goods since Louis XIV invented couture. But it was a particular innovation of the postmodern era to turn this desire inside out — to emblazon the most expensive goods with the names of their manufacturers and thus demean the high-end consumer by turning him (or more often, her) into walking placards on behalf of the merchandise. The consumer’s willingness to be demeaned reflects the tendency of college-educated baby boomers to seek punishment for their materialism. All those Louis Vuitton bags with their thicket of LVs and all those Chanel pumps with their oversized double Cs are consumerist forms of self-abasement. They reflect an affluent public who aren’t about to stop spending money but who are willing to do the next best thing: make themselves look like abject fools while spending it.

The shopping bag reflects the democratization of this trend — its post-postmodern incarnation. It allows the less affluent to participate in being demeaned. Now lower-end merchants can compete with higher-end merchants in biting the hand that feeds them. H&M and Old Navy can ape Gucci and Prada and turn the benighted consumer into their personal billboards. A company’s investment in better quality shopping bags is offset by knowing that the ’tween and the soccer mom will carry them to and fro for weeks, carrefouring the commercial name to inhabitants of their social world. And since the shopping bag has been severed from the merchandise for which it was bought, it becomes a signifier of its carrier — it turns her into the brand. (Something similar is going on with college decals on cars, but I won’t go into that here.)
Before I start sounding like one of those irritating Marxists, let me leave this part of my musing behind and go down into the streets (or, as it were, the mall) to report my own shopping bag findings.  I have to admit that, for all my high-handed theory, I like a nice shopping bag as much as the next guy.

My limited market research shows that shopping bags have indeed gotten nicer. Go into any major store and check this out. Ask if they’ll give you a bag for free — I tried this and had success when the salesperson was around 14 and couldn’t give a damn about anything. In some cases, I bought some negligible item in order to get the bag.

What I found across the board were more durable, attractive bags: thicker cardboard, sturdier handles, glossier coatings, more striking colors and designs. Like the stores with which they are associated, the bags are made to project an image. Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, and J. Crew have discreet bags in solid shades with their names written in refined print on the front, in keeping with their pretensions to being classy. I could see packing a gourmet lunch in the gray Ann Taylor bag (if I packed a gourmet lunch) and toting my leotard and toe shoes in the brown J. Crew (if I had a leotard and toe shoes). One of the most pleasing bags is the Lord & Taylor bag, a creamy white number with the distinctive Lord & Taylor cursive signature in gray across the front and a warm orange lining reminiscent of Christo’s “Gates.” I feel very on-my-way-to improv class when I carry this bag, even though I actually use it to take a change of clothes to Curves. On the other extreme is the Victoria’s Secret shopping bag: a glossy pink with purple and pink stripes on the side — pretty but slutty. Then there’s the Talbot’s red and white Legion of Decency bag, and its doppelganger, the Abercrombie & Fitch bag, emblazoned with a bare-chested young man with a pout. To carry the latter seems to be a step away from toting pornography — and if you’re over 30, child pornography. As I see it, the decision to carry an Abercrombie bag, a Victoria’s Secret bag, or a Talbot’s bag has to do with whether you want to be seen as a pedophile, a prostitute, or a prig.

Then there’s Aerie, which got me started on this shopping bag thing to begin with. The store is obviously geared to the younger set, judging by the profusion of size AA bras scattered about. When I visited, there was a promotion for panties: eight scanty polka-dotted numbers for $25. Everyone in the store seemed to think this an amazing bargain. I wanted to tell them they could get twice as many with a lot more surface area at Marshall’s, but held my tongue. What we all really wanted anyway were the shopping bags. My friend’s daughter was right; they were worth traipsing across the mall for: sky blue with “aerie” in whimsical white lettering positioned under a green dove and above a smattering of flowers. Even the shape of the bag was fetching — sack-like in a charming retro way. The salesgirl, who was of the age to not care less, gladly gave me two for the purchase of a cut-rate thong.

I threw the thong away as soon as I got home, but I folded the bag carefully and will use it on my next trip to Paris — or when I take those sweaters with the stains under the arms to the dry cleaners. • 3 April 2008

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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