After Jean-Louis Dumas met the English-French style icon Jane Birkin on an airplane in 1981, they would create the classiest handbags of history.
Have you noticed that women’s shirts have the buttons on the left and men’s shirts have them on the right? This is an old clothing custom. It comes from the fact that centuries ago, rich women who could afford clothes with buttons were dressed by servants. This is an example of the way in which the history of fashion is inseparable from the history of women. When a product is designed, the user’s lifestyle and habits are taken into account. Sometimes, just one item can come to represent an entire cultural shift.
The iconic Birkin bag is one of those items. As the story goes, the English-French actress and style icon Jane Birkin met Jean-Louis Dumas, Hermès’ former chief executive, on a flight from Paris to London in 1981. She was trying to put her stuff inside the overhead shelf when everything fell out of her carry-on. The reason: the bag she was using couldn’t fit all her things. At that moment, Dumas, with Jane’s help, thought of a practical solution to a problem that affected many women: a bag that’s big enough to carry a decent amount of objects and is simultaneously classy.
After the casual incident, Birkin and Dumas sat next to each other and had a conversation that would improve women’s traveling habits in the future, making it easy for them to move from one place to the next by themselves without needing anyone to carry their belongings. They talked about pockets, and Jane described a non-existent accessory that would be perfect for her. She even did a drawing of her ideal handbag on a piece of paper, including its most convenient size: bigger than existing handbags for women and smaller than a suitcase.
Four years later, the Birkin bag was born, and it became a symbol of wealth and status. Its price ranges from $12,000 to $300,000 or more thanks to the secrecy around the number of bags that are manufactured each year, maintaining the reputation of a luxury item that only an elite group of people can obtain. The bag is frequently used by celebrities that dare to customize it, like Kim Kardashian did when she let her daughter paint it, or Lady Gaga who doodled on it herself. Even Jane Birkin endorses the personalization of the bag and thinks it’s okay to push it around.
What makes the Birkin bag a cultural icon? The bag didn’t become famous right away. The Birkin’s waiting list tripled after a Sex and the City episode aired in 2001, in which Samantha Jones, the famous character, manages to skip the exclusive waiting list to get it. In that episode, she decides that she doesn’t want to spend five years on the waiting list, so she uses the name of one of her celebrity clients to skip them. Today, the waiting list for the Birkin bag doesn’t even exist. This is because the bag’s fame grew so much that it has become a “wish list” instead, and the people who wish to get it have to wait an indefinite amount of time.
Most women can’t afford an original Birkin, but a big majority owns a bag that resembles the shape and size of Dumas’ design because of its practicality. Because of its influential qualities, there’s plenty of controversy around it, including animal cruelty issues and the fact that counterfeits are nearly indistinguishable from the originals, reducing the idea that it’s a special article that only a selected group can own. Copies of the Birkin bag can lower its monetary value, but its cultural impact remains intact.
What Dumas observed on the airplane, and what Jane ranted about after her things fell to the floor, was the manufacturers’ ideas about women and their habits: the belief that women don’t carry their belongings because they're carried for them, because women never travel alone. In 1981, those ideas were already old. Almost forty years after that flight, they’re fortunately ancient.
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