Saturday, July 02, 2005

The bag's the charm

(Picture: Vice magazine)

2005 really seems to be a charmed year, accessory-wise. (Haw haw.) Elaborate charm necklaces and earrings continue their reign, and probably will as long as people persist with the boho look. (As an aside, I am just astounded at how long this boho nonsense has persisted for. Surely people will get tired of it soon. Surely.) But lately I have been noticing that mainstream stores are getting into the idea of bag charms, something that only used to be popular with international students. (I've had a little decorative satin toy on my bag for the last couple of years - it was given to me by a Chinese postgrad in my department after a trip back to China, and I couldn't think what else to do with it.) But now you can buy leather bag tassels at Witchery, diamante initials at Portmans and beaded charms at Sportsgirl.

(Image from Sportsgirl.)

This object is billed as a "keyring", but you can tell by the size and the fact it also has a hook that you're also meant to use it as a bag charm. You can buy blinged-out versions of these at accessory shops like Diva. I was in there last week and asked the assistant about them. She said they were very popular, along with mobile phone chains.

At first, this seems to stem from a desire for individuality - making mass-produced accessories reflect your own taste and personality. But there are two problems with that. First, these accessories are just as mass-produced. You're equally likely to see someone with 'your' charm on their bag as you'd otherwise be to see 'your' bag on someone else. Second, when you mass them up as in the photo above, it loses coherence and just looks insane.

As the bag equivalent of wearing about a billion button badges on your jacket, I suppose you could call it 'punk'. But what is punk? Is it an anarchic philosophy? Is it a DIY style of cultural production? Is it an aesthetic of bricolage? Punk is such an elastic term that a recent BBC Radio 1 poll on the greatest punks of all time includes Che Guevara, Johnny Cash and Eminem. In turn, that makes me wonder whether the punkest thing you could do right now would be to defy any coherent semiotic reading of your clothes, like Dick Hebdige and a thousand other British academics performed on the original punks.

In that sense, the insane proliferation of charms on your bag doesn't make a statement about 'who you are' - it repels analysis, and obscures your tastes and identity. Instead, it's just a bowerbird mentality - a love of decorative 'shiny things'. Rather than a semiotic statement, it's an affective statement. It's saying "I wear these things because the way they look makes me feel good." And perhaps, like the bowerbird's collection, it's intended to draw admiring glances, thus drawing a kind of affective circle: "these objects make me feel good, and the attention of others also makes me feel good."