This Is My Purse & That Is My Wedding Dress

It occurred to me while wedding dress shopping with my sister that the search for the perfect dress is a kind of litmus test for whether or not you’re ready for marriage.

I was wrong. It’s not the dress; it’s her purse.

A woman’s purse can says a lot about who she is. Take these examples.

Darlene has upwards of a hundred purses of all different sizes and shapes and colors. She switches purses on a near daily basis depending on her outfit and her mood. She somehow manages to transfer all her most immediate worldly valuables from one handbag to another without a hitch. Darlene loves to travel, where love seems an inadequate word. For instance, she’s currently in Costa Rica after only a month ago being in Venezuela. Darlene loves to go from one exotic destination to another the way other people like to try different restaurants. She loves to do that too. Up until recently, in fact, she was dating a chef. If you go to Darlene’s Facebook page you’ll see that she has over a thousand friends. Who can really have over a thousand friends? But Darlene, you might safely argue, uses the site for its original purpose which is to network. This is partly true. In fact, she’s known amongst our mutual friends as the networking queen. If you try to reach her, you’ll often find that she’s out because she loves to be distracted. Either that or she’s terrified of loneliness.

Margaret carries the exact same purple satchel that I’ve seen her carry since I moved to Boston nearly four years ago. It’s got studding details that look very hip, lots of pockets, and it’s not a color I would think could work for everything but she makes it work. Purple is her favorite color and I believe she carries this all the time because there’s no reason to bother switching purses when the one she’s got looks great and pretty much goes with everything she wears. She’s also been deeply in love and had her heart broken many times. What makes me admire and respect her is how she never loses hope post-breakup and actively works to break out of her funk as soon as possible by putting herself out there because Margaret’s highest goal in life is to fall in love, get married and raise a family. Margaret’s consistency of character, evenness of temperament, and deep sense of loyalty is extraordinary. Like her purse, she has not changed: still pretty, feminine, practical, and always looking squeeze as much life and love as possible from the things she enjoys and people she cares about.

She’s now resorted to carrying a royal blue grocery store tote. It’s so ugly, she says, that it goes with everything.

Nora Ephron, screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally, hates purses. After years of struggling to keep one in a condition she wasn’t ashamed of or exasperated with she’s now resorted to carrying a royal blue grocery store tote. It’s so ugly, she says, that it goes with everything and its roomy enough for her to carry all the things she needs. Nora’s been married three times, meaning, she’s not looking to impress anyone by being anybody, but herself. Just look at her purse.

My Mom doesn’t carry a purse. She’s a sixty year old woman who wears pants with pockets that can accommodate all her cards, ID, cash, keys, receipts, and always emergency doggy poopy bags for the pooch. When the pockets aren’t deep enough, she’ll wear her business apron while running errands. For very special occasions she’ll break out the LV Epi leather handbag she got in London, which I covet, from its dust bag. It’s about the only time she’ll apply lipstick too. She has a closet full of gorgeous purses, some of which she has never carried out. From this collection I have been the lucky recipient of three purses, a Prada, a Fendi, and a Marienelli, one of my absolutely favorites. (It has a vintage flavor and my Mom’s earliest acquisitions when she moved to Canada. She would have been about my age, probably, when she purchased it.) I used to resent her for not letting me borrow them at will. “What are you going to do with them just sitting there?” She has, for instance, recently received from my aunt, her sister, a pink and white Gucci satchel. It’ doesn’t really look like her style and not even really mine but she’s got it in its dust bag sitting there in her closet. Mom is a 16 hour work day divorcee who sees her friends every few months. Remarriage is anathema and she seems less than interested in making a man friend. For over 25 years she was married to a man who never adored her. She has known no other man. I imagine there are parts, secret, feminine, lonely parts of her that she wonders if she’ll ever take out, try on, show off. Meanwhile, she keeps them tucked away and she pretends she’s forgotten all about them in their dust bags in her closet.

Sometimes a bag is just a bag.

I’m a cross body bag girl myself. I ride my bike to get to me to places and so the cross body bag is quite useful for the bike commuter. Most of the bags I own, save one, are from my Mom. She has exquisite and expensive taste so you might assume that I’m rich or a wannabe rich girl. I am not. In fact, I am currently unemployed but that’s beside the point here. My favorite purse, which I no longer carry because I’ve worn it out, is a vintage black pebble leather Prada shoulder bag. The strap is long enough that I can wear it cross body. It is deceivingly roomy for its size so that I can fit a book, my wallet, phone, gloves, gum, half dozen lipsticks, packet of tissue, change purse, sunglasses and case, and notepad and pen without it looking stuffed. Also the Prada imprint on the front flap is inconspicuous, which I like very much. What does this say about me? I have no idea. Sometimes a bag is just a bag.

Reading the other example, though, you see what I mean.

[My sister] felt conspicuous to her coworkers at the bank and imagined they looked with mocking pity at the bag as a sad relic of her broken relationship with a very rich boyfriend.

My sister has several purses, all of them fabulous, but the one she carried during her dress shopping excursions was a Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Canvas tote (we Lee women like the LV), no longer found in stores. It has rolled leather handles and red suede lining, no zipper, just a clip hook, one zippered pocket in the lining. She bought it back in 2004 or 2005 when she went to New York City to run the city marathon. Her ex-boyfriend, whom she’d been dating for 4 or 5 years at the time, someone she was planning to become engaged to later that year, took her shopping after her grueling run. She came home with this magnificent handbag.

Even before their relationship ended, my sister regretted the purchase. She felt that it was too heavy. It didn’t have a zipper so walking around in public with it made her uneasy, as if anyone at anytime could slip their fingers into her handbag and take something. It didn’t have a shoulder strap so she felt that it was cumbersome when she needed both hands. After they broke up, she thought she must look ridiculous stepping out of her mousy Toyota Corolla with this bag that cost more than a couple of months rent for a lot of people. She felt conspicuous to her coworkers at the bank and imagined they looked with mocking pity at the bag as a sad relic of her broken relationship with a very rich boyfriend.

She stopped carrying it, opting instead for a shoulder bag with a zipper, smaller in dimension, cheaper. I thought she was a fool. All I could think about was this glorious tote sitting dust bagged and neglected in her closet. I believe she was putting her best foot behind her or what could be described as moving backwards.

Fast forward to 2011. I return home for the holiday season. I’m at Lowon Pope waiting for my sister to arrive at the wedding dress boutique located in Liberty Village, a very hip and very yuppie part of Toronto. She’s coming straight from work.

The dust bag removed and out in the world, I see the purse for the first time in a long time. Flushed from hurry and excited by our first dress shopping outing, my sister strides in holding her LV. She drops it on the couch, not on the floor, tosses her gloves casually inside, leaving the top of the tote wide open with her blackberry, her wallet, her Italian leather gloves, a notebook and other valuables inside clearly visible. The large purse takes up a good chunk of the sofa’s real estate.

It’s one thing to know that your sibling is in charge of a lot of people, but seeing her, this young slender girl with perfectly coiffed hair, a fabulous dress, poise, and easy authority, it suddenly dawned on me that my little sister, whose picture of her at 10 has been in my locket worn around my neck since I was 14, was a real pro.

Earlier that week, my mother and I went to see my sister at her new place of work. She is the branch manager of Scotia Bank’s largest branch in Canada. Scotia Bank is number three of the Big Five, the name colloquially given to the five largest banks that dominate the banking industry of Canada. She was head hunted by one of Scotia’s executives specifically to take over the reins of this branch.

It’s one thing to know that your sibling is in charge of a lot of people, but seeing her, this young slender girl with perfectly coiffed hair, a fabulous dress, poise, and easy authority, it suddenly dawned on me that my little sister, whose picture of her at 10 has been in my locket worn around my neck since I was 14, was a real pro. She has a lot of responsibilities and she’s capable of meeting all of them. I could see how people could admire her swift progress in the corporate world, respect her, envy her, be intimidated by her. At the risk of sounding parental, I’d never been prouder.

At Lowon Pope, Lana Lowon chooses a dozen dresses for my sister to try. All of them are hand sewn and designed by her and her husband, Mr. Pope. We make a short list. The following day we return to the Lowon Pope with my mother after a horrifying, almost comical experience at a large, bride-factory-like “boutique” with their cupcake gowns and realize that the top runner from the night before is the clear winner. It’s a stunner. Completely unadorned other than the cut and fabric. It’s classic, structured, extremely well crafted, and deceptively simple. Just like my sister.

But just for fun, here are some of the other gowns she tried on:

Back to the first night of dress shopping. Later as we are about to leave, my sister is back in her work dress and coat, tucks the tote quite naturally on the crook of her arm as she slips on her gloves and I notice that she holds the formerly too heavy bag as if it weighs nothing at all. She seems almost unaware of it the way women who carry a purse or the same purse all the time are quite automatic about their purses almost as if it were an extension of their body. She’s no longer apologetic about its size, cost, and her privilege to carry it.

The bag no longer owns her. She now owns the bag.

In hindsight, I realize that my sister’s certainty about the dress when she came across the right one was a foregone conclusion. The sign of her readiness to marry, to make that decision for herself, was in the bag.

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