Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Forget that handbag and set yourself free

Canny businesses tap ordinary people's insecurity. Women are image victims once again
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Today I take you into the tricky world of handbags. Most men who are not thieves fear the dark insides of our bags. Ask them to get keys or coins and they go in as if an alert Black Widow spider is lurking at the bottom. They can't understand why we need these adult satchels, and so suspect the worst. This week the poor things must have been even more baffled to witness the two estimable female candidates for Labour's deputy leadership duelling over handbags.

You just don't get it, chaps. This thing we carry is loaded with serious meaning. Mrs Thatcher held her bags tight on the inside of her iron elbow. The incident of his dog chewing on the £2,000 bag belonging to Kimberley Quinn encapsulated the foolishness of Blunkett's obsessive affair. It revealed the dynamics of class inequality, exposed the manipulative yet dim rich and the envious face of Blair's Labour party desperately seeking brassy, toff playmates. In today's Britain, handbags have become potent symbols of politics, power, economics, social mobility, pre-feminist proclivities or post-feminist liberties or the death of feminism, ethical living, advanced capitalism, the ebb of socialism and possibly the end of history.

Hazel Blears owns what I am told is an Orla Kiely handbag, costing £250. It is a designer name I don't recognise, not being an aficionado. I could imagine Ms Blears buying Swiss army knives and Rosa Klebb shoes, but not, to be honest, softly voluptuous gear. Harriet Harman who always looks nice, averred righteously that she would never buy an accessory costing more than £50 and criticised our divided society "where some people struggle and others spend £10,000 on a handbag".

Sharp ripostes were returned by the diminutive and unbending Ms Blears. Politicians had no right to tell people how to spend their money, she scolded, adding that the party should never again wear tank-tops and flares and needs to give people a "platform for opportunity not a cap on aspiration". I know, I know, I am, caricaturing Blears. But I am a Harmanite on this war of the bags. And millions of other women voters are Blearsites.

Ruth from Buckinghamshire, for one, who writes with much conviction on the matter, in an exchange on the net: "I work hard to earn my money so if I want to blow an entire months [sic] wages on a handbag then that's up to me. I have no problem spending £500 on a handbag, its make [sic] me feel good to walk down the street with it. If you want to be cheap with your plastic then so be it."

Thus spake an aspirational babe on the nirvana of choice. How do you blow an entire month's wages without borrowing beyond your means? These women walk more proud because they are holding exorbitantly priced carriers made from cow skins, a cheap and ubiquitous material turned into gold by canny businesses who know exactly how to tap into the insecurities of ordinary people seeking affirmation and the over-rich who have to find endless ways to unload their piles.

One day great leather handbags cost between £35 and £60, then suddenly even the cheapest high street shops had hiked up the prices. And the trade roared as the herds rushed to purchase carry-out self-esteem. Today there are bags on the market costing £80,000. If this is aspiration, no thanks.

I do have some high-label clothes - bought cut-price in sales and outlets. Most of my best clothes are inexpensive. We were invited by friends to Glyndebourne this Saturday, the temple of couture as well as music. I wore a lacy skirt (£12), a beautiful, amber 18th-century-style bodice (£14 in a sale), and an even cheaper bolero. Two grand ladies admired the bodice, and I was pleased to tell them the cost. Real style never slavishly succumbs to diktats. Post-feminism has made women image victims again, confident only when they have, not for what they are. To free yourself from the fashion hounds is to free yourself from others, too, who would control you. Like Ms Blears.

Harman's concern about inequality adds moral weight to the revulsion rising against designer-bag shopaholism. More money is swilling around in Britain than ever. Ours is well on the way to becoming a suspicious, uncaring and dysfunctional society. Our modern over-rich do not turn into philanthropists as many do in the United States. They buy, buy, buy bleeding handbags, never unzipped to bring out two pounds for a Big Issue.

Next month the fashion changes and more will rush to buy more leather, ending in bag mountains to fill in the sites of social democracy and political engagement. We can carry on with such binge consumption or step towards a saner, equitable future. The battle of the handbags is about that crucial decision.