Poultry vs. Prada

As per­haps you’ve heard—because, really, I won’t shut up about it—I have a new purse.  It’s made of rub­ber and looks pretty much exactly like a chicken. It cost $34.99 on Amazon.com.

The last time I was this excited about a purse was more than a decade ago. I was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan, and the purse was Prada. It cost some­thing in the range of $500, and I did not buy it on Amazon.com.

This real­iza­tion got me think­ing once again about the ways my life has evolved since mov­ing back to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts a year and a half ago. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve been reflect­ing on the key role of “ref­er­ence groups” in shap­ing con­sump­tion patterns.

I first came across this term in soci­ol­o­gist Juliet B. Schor’s The Over­spent Amer­i­can: Why We Want What We Don’t Need while research­ing an essay for Sec­on­dAct on The Secret to Liv­ing Well on Less. As Schor explains it, we tend to com­pare our own lifestyles and pos­ses­sions “to those of a select group of peo­ple we respect and want to be like, peo­ple whose sense of what’s impor­tant in life seems close to our own.” This is our ref­er­ence group, and it’s mal­leable. It shifts over time and depend­ing on life circumstances.

Not sur­pris­ingly, my Man­hat­tan ref­er­ence group was way dif­fer­ent from my ref­er­ence group in a col­lege town smack in the heart of what’s often dryly referred to as The Happy Val­ley.  And if that’s not a clear enough expla­na­tion, con­sider this socio-cultural map of Mass­a­chu­setts. (N.B. We are the bright pink sector.)

Image credit: The AwesomeBoston.com

As I wrote in my living-well-on-less essay, the fact that I’m spend­ing far less money these days isn’t because I’m now a “bet­ter” or less mate­ri­al­is­tic per­son. What’s changed isn’t the core of who I am. What’s changed is who I hang out with.

But while I may not be a bet­ter per­son, I do have a bet­ter life. And by “bet­ter” I mean more in sync with things that really matter—the things that really make me happy.  By way of illus­tra­tion, I offer the fol­low­ing comparison:

What I Got out of My Prada Handbag

I do not love shop­ping, and for this rea­son, it was great to have a sin­gle item that, by dint of sim­ply car­ry­ing it, would take me pretty much any­where. In 1990s New York, the uni­form of black Prada purse, black dress, black boots saved me count­less hours of bore­dom in our finer retail estab­lish­ments and, despite the hefty price tag The Purse car­ried, it likely ended up sav­ing me money given the alternatives.

Plus, it was, in some strange way, like being part of a club—or at least putting in an appli­ca­tion.  As I recall—and it’s get­ting a bit hazy now—such acces­sories were pop­u­lar at the time in the NYC pub­lish­ing world, and while I was still prac­tic­ing law, I wanted to be writer. I can’t say that the purse helped me write, but it sym­bol­ized the inten­tion, and in this way, it may have helped just a bit in keep­ing the dream alive.

What I Get out of My (Non-Prada) Henbag

I make peo­ple smile. And laugh! They stop me on the street and say: I LOVE YOUR PURSE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT? Then we chat for a bit. They tell me why they love the purse—about their friend who has chick­ens or their own chick­ens or how much bet­ter fresh eggs are than the ones you buy at the super­mar­ket (true), and then we smile and move on, but it’s sort of like I have a new friend somewhere.

When I meet some­one who loves the chicken purse, I also know I’ve met some­one with whom I’ll likely share other com­mon ground. Car­ry­ing the chicken purse is like walk­ing a puppy. Like it or not (and I do), I’m going to end up more con­nected than I was when I left my house that morning.

As go my purses, so goes my life.

The other day I bumped into a friend on Main Street, and after show­ing off the new hen­bag, I launched into a dis­qui­si­tion on my Poul­try vs. Prada mus­ings. I could tell he couldn’t fathom the notion of spend­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars on a pock­et­book. But rather than say­ing so, he sim­ply observed, “I think you’re head­ing in the right direction.”

The neigh­bors


© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

18 thoughts on “Poultry vs. Prada

  1. Yes yes yes to a Chicken Bag!

    Also, I love the map of Mass­a­chus­sets. (I’d love to have a map like that before any trip, really). Yay for liv­ing in the pink area — the hip­pies who live close the trees !

  2. Great post, great bag! Your friend is right — you’re def­i­nitely head­ing in the right direction.

  3. It’s true, when you have a pro­fes­sional job in an office, cloth­ing and acces­sory choices boil down to prob­lem solv­ing. With this pur­chase have I avoided look­ing: fat, old, sloppy, home­less, crazy, etc. Shop­ping for clothes has not been any fun since I donned that first skirt suit in the mid-1990s. No more vin­tage leather jack­ets, mini-kilts, wrestling shoes, polo boots, bloomers, what­ever struck my fancy at the time. Of course liv­ing in the East Vil­lage get-ups (since that’s what they were) were encour­aged. I long for the day when I can stop dress­ing like a grown up and again have a “get-up”…of course by then I will be really old, and will indeed look home­less, crazy, etc.
    Lisa recently posted…Tony JudtMy Profile

  4. That is AWE-some! And I have just the friend who “needs” one of those rub­ber chicken purses in the worst way! Come to think of it, I think I need one too! And I rarely, and I do mean rarely, buy any­thing friv­o­lous. But this just rocks!

    I always enjoy your posts. They leave me pon­der­ing about my own life and what my next steps will be. Thank you for your hon­esty and will­ing­ness to share.
    Kathryn V recently posted…Kicked-Up Savory Break­fast CasseroleMy Profile

    • Thank you so much! And I’m con­vinced that use of the word “need’ in con­nec­tion with rub­ber chicken purses may well be more appro­pri­ate than its use in many other con­texts. ;-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Poul­try vs. PradaMy Profile

  5. So glad I got to meet the chicken-purse in per­son! This is absolutely fab­u­lous, Amy. I love this dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at “mate­ri­al­ism.” I def­i­nitely remem­ber really want­ing a Coach bag when I was work­ing in a par­tic­u­lar MLM com­pany for a while, and now I won­der if I was crazy, so it def­i­nitely makes sense to me that our desires are moti­vated by who we hang around with. :-) Great food for thought. Plus, I really may have to get myself a chicken-purse if it is such a great con­ver­sa­tion starter!
    Sarah recently posted…Ludi­crous Fear Pop­corn… Now With Real Fear!My Profile

    • It’s totally under­stand­able that you would have wanted a Coach bag–I myself wanted (& acquired) quite a num­ber of them over the years. In fact, the acqui­si­tion of my very first prob­a­bly gave me some­thing of the same thrill as that Prada purse did, though nei­ther pro­vided any­where near the fun the chicken purse has in just a week. If you get one, I want to see a photo of you car­ry­ing it in Taos! :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Poul­try vs. PradaMy Profile

  6. Leav­ing aside all the impor­tant soci­o­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions you men­tioned, the best thing about that purse is that it is delight­fully whim­si­cal and makes peo­ple smile and talk. Three cheers for the henbag! :-)

  7. Ms. Gut­man, this is a thor­oughly enjoy­able post. You point out some issues which are both amus­ing and thought-provoking. Just how influ­en­tial is my ref­er­ence group? Do I really need a quar­ter of a mil­lion dol­lar Lam­borgh­ini to drive down to the cor­ner store to pick up some milk? The prac­ti­cal point of view, think­ing of your Prada ver­sus your poul­try purse, is just what could you do or did you do with the $465.01 in sav­ings? Instead of try­ing to keep up with the Jones, maybe we all just have to change ref­er­ence group which may not even entail the geo­graph­i­cal cure.

    All the best to you in your world. I’m read­ing. wb :-)

    • Thank you so much! And yes, whom we spend time with mat­ters in so many dif­fer­ent ways, includ­ing how we spend our money. It’s so much eas­ier to act in line with our true best inter­ests when the peo­ple around us share our val­ues.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Poul­try vs. PradaMy Profile

  8. I adore this post! And of course, the point about your ref­er­ence group. In a town where so many peo­ple have back­yard chick­ens that you can even pur­chase their eggs at the dry clean­ers, it seems all too apro­pos that you are car­ry­ing a chicken purse.
    Molly@Postcards from a Peace­ful Divorce recently posted…Plants Grow…My Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge