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


Copyright © 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 !

    • Thanks, Hannah! And yes, the map is brilliant–I can’t take credit for creating it, just for including it in the post. :-)

  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.

  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.

    • 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. ;-)

  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!

    • 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! :-)

  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.

  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.

    • Thanks, Molly! And yes, there is a lot of chicken synchronicity in my life these days. (Speaking of which, along with the purse, I also got a chicken wall calendar. :-) )

Comments are closed.