Sunday, February 19, 2012

I'm not that kind of girl

For more than twenty years I have hankered to own a Kelly bag. Every thing I read about it, everything I've learnt about Hermes has made the yearning more acute - my style and my impeccable taste could only truly be expressed by carrying that sober, womanly, expertly constructed bag.

I know that the Birkin bag is the more popular accessory but the likelihood of owning one is so remote that the Birkin almost a cartoon bag, a garish token flaunted by the wealthy, guarded protectively by Hermes by a long waiting list and a prohibitive price tag. You can really only get one if you are very, very rich. Style is not a prerequisite, so owning one illustrates no more sartorial intelligence than a WAG covering her barbecue sauce-coloured spray tan with an entire outfit of the Burberry nova check.

Yes, it was the quieter, less sought-after Kelly bag that called me. The bag has heritage and breeding,  named as it was for a Princess and created so she could conceal her pregnant belly from what must have been a much less forgiving 1950s sensibility. Kelly has an unremarkable design, carries only what you need (no liquorice allsorts and September edition of Vogue welcomed here) and appears in more muted colours than the technicoloured Birkin spectrum: Brun. Marron. Noir.

And as I've grown older and more belligerent and realised my time on this planet is actually pretty limited, I thought, what the hell. You live a decent life, you don't hurt animals or plot wars or buy the Daily Mail. And you're not going to live forever. If you want a Kelly bag, get a Kelly bag.

So I saved. I scoured the Internet. I weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of second-hand vs. new. I saved some more. I checked my tape measure. I read everything I could find on Kelly bags.

And then I chose a vendor.

I'm in Paris, talking to a gentle, well dressed man who specialises in the purchase and re-sale of Hermes bags and scarves. He hands me the bag of my dreams - the 34 centimetre Kelly supple in quiet, milky-chocolate brown. It's in beautiful condition - there's not a mark on it. The gold plating glows. The lock and key are perfect. The leather is soft and thick and securely sewn.

It's 4200 euros. The kindly Monsieur offers me a discount of 200 euros.

It's just a matter of handing over my credit card.

The shoulder strap sits on my shoulder perfectly. When I turn to look in the mirror I can see her, the woman I hoped to be, the woman I thought I would become once I owned a Kelly bag.

She doesn't look any different.

But she will be, once she starts using that bag. She'll tell everyone without even lifting her eyes who she is. That she's stylish. She knows the best and she can afford it, and she gets it for herself without a moment's hesitation. She can afford to blow what it would cost to feed a family over six months on one hand bag.

She won't have to say anything else. Every other little pleasure she takes in her clothes, all the fun she has at flea markets and op shops, all the care she takes dressing for work and play will be redundant. She's carrying the fashion mecca. She's got nothing to add.

And I handed her back, the bag of my dreams, and told Monsieur, "I'll think about it."

Which I did, properly, for the first time.

There were lots of considerations. Would I use it? Would I love it? Would I love it after a year of penury? Because blowing 4000 euros on one item means nothing else, not a pair of tights or a hair clip, not a lipstick or a sparkly brooch, not here in the City of Light, not at home in the City of everyday life, not for a year.

And what do I think I will get for 4000 euros? Style? Respect? A certificate that acknowledges my unique gift for picking fabrics at a hundred paces? A statuette for my skills in choosing and mixing gold  and silver jewellery? A party that celebrates my fabulous collection of 1930s frocks and second hand Maud Frizon pumps?

I get a handbag that tells some people that I don't have much imagination but I do I have a lot of  money to spend on handbags.

It tells people that it doesn't matter what I'm wearing. I can wear an unironed shirt with torn trousers with scuffed beetroot-stained trainers but it won't matter if I  have a Kelly bag. That counts for something. It's style! Look! It cost three months wages! It doesn't do what my faithful Bayswater does, in that it carries what I actually need to work effectively day by day. It's not as pretty as the vintage green leather Desmo I bought on eBay for $17 and it's not as skilfully made as the needlepoint purses I collect, all hand embroidered, all fine examples of women's unpaid labour from decades ago. But it's style. The magazines said.

It's style, but only in theory. Not real style. The kind of style that money buys, not the living embodiment of style I see on countless people on the street, on the bus, in the office, in the blogs I like, every day. Not the style of real people. Not the kind of style I want and have the time of my life trying to create and refine everyday.

And I'll never be that carefully join-the-dots, carry-a-Kelly bag picture of style. My hair frizzes. My eyes are an odd shade of green, not unlike an industrial adhesive past its use-by date.  I like to mismatch colours. Some days I like to wear head-to- toe black. I still love impractical and somewhat frumpy Laura Ashley dresses.  I like to wear Birkenstocks with silk dresses. I make mistakes with proportion. Sometimes everything looks wrong on me. Sometimes the most ugly things look perfectly lovely on me. My skin is crumpled and unless I smear it with pearlescent goo I buy in chemists, dull. My stomach sticks out, my legs are short, I read an inordinate amount of interesting journals and books so my forehead is a gridlock of lines.

I love my whole imperfect package, and love that none of it goes with the refined niceness of a Kelly bag.

I left perfect Kelly with Monsieur and flew home to Sydney with a fat little tartan pouch I got on sale at Muji, a second hand cloud-coloured Longchamp satchel I bought in a consignment store down in the Marais, a sweet little floral leather number I bought from a kind man who helped me with my grammar in a brocante the 2nd arrondissement, a hand made leather applique pouch from a timid artist in Cordes and a brand new gobby, smack-you-in-the-face-with- a-fistful-of sunshine patent Longchamp sweetie that I bought at the sales in Toulouse.  They all work with my dresses, my Levis, my pencil skirts and the suits I wear to work. They have room for liquorice allsorts and they left me with change to re-chart my imperfect, uneven path to fashion mecca as I define it day by day.

Maybe one day I'll find a Kelly in a consignment store for similar change. I've read about that before, the clever women who have found a Kelly bag for a good price. In the world of style and fashion miracles do happen and the amount of time of time I spend scouring for bargains means probability - if not luck - is on my side.

Meanwhile I've unpacked my motley crew and I've tried them out with different clothes, at different occasions.  I've swapped scarves to tone or clash or contradict their colours,  I've changed shirts or skirts to matched their proportion. I've stared at them lovingly in the mirror on my way out the door.

I like what I see.