“It's a great mistake for any woman to have a heart bigger than her purse”. This line, from Camille,the 1936 Hollywood version of The Lady of the Camellias, is directed to Greta Garbo. Leaving aside whether a relationship exists between the heart and this quintessential female accessory, it is certainly true to say that the a woman’s personality can be defined by her handbag.
The bag’s size can determine whether she is shy or outgoing, creative or practical and its contents can reveal a lifetime’s secrets. Unlike a garment that is worn and paraded, the bag is an appendage that may and even must “live” apart from the body. That is why it is so important to choose carefully what tells others about a woman’s character, as it may be left on a chair, in a car or on a sofa. The bag alone should reveal the essential traits of a woman’s personality.
One only has to think of two popular icons like Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who were associated with their handbags. For instance, in 1958 when the young Princess of Monaco appeared on the front cover of Life magazine carrying a bag which she used to cover her stomach “bump” – she was pregnant with Caroline – she was immediately identified with the bag, to the extent that the fashion house that designed it decided to rename it the “Kelly” bag. Similarly, the widow of the thirty-fifth President of the USA was used to carrying two bags, one small, precious one that matched her outfit, and another, larger one to carry not only her charm, but also all the essentials of a women of her class, and thus transformed a simple Gucci bag into the unforgettable “Jackie O”. If one were to rummage in this bag, one would find the story of a girl who would eventually become the history of America and the world.
When Jackie came into the world on 28th July, 1929 in the small town of Southampton, two kilometres from New York, her mother, Janet Norton Lee and her father, John Vernou Bouvier III, immediately realized that their first-born had a character of her own. She should have been born in mid-June, but decided to emerge six weeks later. It would have been too much to wait for the Wall Street Crash that same year, yet her proximity to money and her strange relationship with it was probably influenced by this event, which had serious repercussions on her family.
However, money was not and never would be a problem for her, as she was beautiful and stylish. At the age of 18 she was crowned debutante of the year, and wasting no time she went to Paris to soak up the capital’s sophisticated atmosphere. She often discussed issues with her father, one of them being whether “men don’t like smart women”. Grooming herself was thus one way to distract attention from her brain. When she enrolled at Washington University she found the place to be predominantly sexist, but was herself at ease with the opposite sex, being both extremely intelligent and attractive. She was capable of holding any kind of conversation, for beneath her stylish hair and smart hats matching her shoes was a bright woman. These are the two aspects that made her understand that the clutch bag was too small, and she needed something larger in line with her character, something to contain her passions and vitality. One of her passions was photography, and her pipe expressed her vitality. Everyone smoked it at University. All the men, obviously. The time when she would not be able to do as she wished was still far into the future. So meanwhile she enjoyed her passion for slow smoking.
Jackie graduated and then was awarded Vogue’s junior editorship prize, beating 1,279 candidates. Despite the glamorous environment, the fashion world did not really satisfy her enquiring mind. Thus, she started to work as a photographer for the Washington Times-Herald, which would shape her future.
In fact, in 1953 she was asked to take pictures of famous people, and amongst them was a young Senator from Massachusetts called John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They fell in love and got married on 12th September of the same year. She was the woman that everyone wanted to be, beautiful, elegant and married to the man who could change the course of the country’s history. During the electoral campaign she was always by his side. Her friend and couturier, also Grace Kelly’s former fiancée, advised her on her style, behaviour and conversation, and to someone who had been used to doing as she wished, this was difficult. For example, “the First Lady shouldn’t smoke in public”. She obeyed and so stopped smoking in front of the prying media and public. However, in private she could not resist this pleasure, so in her handbag, the larger one which she carried everywhere with her, she always kept a packet of cigarettes to be smoked quickly on the side during the rare moments when she was alone. She also kept a pipe and tobacco, to be pulled out on the occasions when she could really relax and enjoy a smoke during her stressful life as JFK’s wife. Being alone is difficult when you embody the American Dream during the years in which dreams were highly important. However, as often happens, dreams can shatter, even when they have come true.
Dallas, 22 November, 1963. On that morning Jackie chooses to wear a pink wool suit. Before leaving she glances at herself in the mirror one last time, adjusts her hat, wipes a smudge of lipstick from the corner of her mouth and smiles. Everything is ok. She gets her clutch bag. It holds everything she needs: powder, mirror and a handkerchief. She then takes her large bag and checks its contents, which are much more important: a pair of tights, other handkerchiefs, a deodorant, hairclips, mints, two packets of cigarettes and a pipe and tobacco. Maybe she will have time for a good smoke. Then she leaves.
The tragic end to that fashion show dissolves in tears, hers and those of the whole world with her. When the family biographer William Manchester was commissioned by her to write about the time of Kennedy’s assassination in his book, The Death of a President, Jackie made only a few corrections. One of them was to remove any mention of a pipe and tobacco in her handbag. Too intimate.