I read the reviews, and then I went ahead and read Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue anyway. I am one of those Real Housewives fans: I am endlessly fascinated by people who take themselves, and their luxuries, seriously.
Martin and the Upper East Side women upon whom she trains her “anthropological” lens are very serious about the “megastatus symbol, perhaps the ultimate one, for women,” the Hermes Birkin bag.
The Birkin features prominently in the book’s most entertaining–and ridiculous–anecdote, which finds Martin as the target of a well-heeled woman, carrying a Birkin or its ilk, who “charges” her on an Upper East Side sidewalk (80-81). Martin observes the phenomenon–a woman with a more exclusive handbag charging a woman with a lesser handbag–again and again. The bags, Martin writes, “were armor, weapons, flags, and more it seemed; everyone who charged someone seemed to have a fantastic bag, and to revel in brushing her opponent with it. This was the coup de grace” (83).
Martin seeks a critical analysis of these sidewalk performances from an English professor friend who studies the commodification of women in Victorian novels: “‘These women are reminding men, society, and themselves that they inhabit a privileged, identifactory relationship to those bags,'” he tells her. Martin seems to understand, and concludes that by “[g]oing after and procuring something precious and scarce, we are also trying to rejuvenate our own scarcity, to reinvigorate the sense of everyone in our society of our own value” (100-101). Despite this realization, both sad and damning, as well as the egregious behavior she has witnessed by Birkin owners, Martin nonetheless goes native, acquiring a Birkin of her own.
Like Martin, I like nice things. Although I could–would–never even dream of owning a Birkin (I’ve read they begin at $8,000 and run to the tens of thousands), I admit, I am no stranger to the concept, or acquisition, of status symbols.
Before beginning my sophomore year of college, I purchased my university’s equivalent of a Birkin, a $275 Return to Tiffany necklace from the jewelers Tiffany & Co. The sterling silver necklace was as close to today’s “statement necklace” as one could come in 2001. Certainly, compared to the other necklaces popular on campus–the delicate Elsa Peretti Open Heart and Bean necklaces, as well as the myriad sorority lavalieres–my heavy, solid necklace made a statement in both style and substance. This breastplate of a necklace said things about me that, in my anxiety and insecurity, I could not say about myself. It said: I have good taste, I can afford to buy my books and this necklace, I am as good as you, I am one of you.
My necklace gave me confidence, and I wore it for years. Now it sits in a drawer. I don’t need to wear it anymore, but I’m not ready to let it go, either.