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Martha's image problem is in the bag

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Martha Stewart came armed with two handbags as her trial began last week on charges that include conspiracy, obstruction of justice and securities fraud.

One appeared to be the typical working woman's carryall. It was made of dark, sturdy leather and was roomy enough to hold a significant amount of paperwork and the various electronic organizers that are part of a professional woman's arsenal. The bag, with a double handle and curved lines, was the sort of accessory a woman might carry if she wanted a tote that was softer and more versatile than a basic briefcase. If there was any subliminal message in her bag, it was that Stewart is a working woman, just like so many others.

The second bag was a warm shade of brown with a rounded double handle, tiny metal feet, a fold-over top and a beltlike closure that wrapped around its body. It was an Hermes Birkin handbag. And for a certain breed of woman, it is the handbag equivalent of a Rolls-Royce or a dozen illicit Cuban cigars. It is a bag that announces that one has achieved a breathtaking level of success. It can declare its owner's wealth and status from a distance of 50 paces.

The opening price for a Birkin is $6,000, according to a spokeswoman for the company. The most expensive version is $85,000. It is made of crocodile and has solid gold closures that are adorned with diamonds.

Perusing eBay in search of Birkin bags, one can find a version in matte brown crocodile priced at $22,999. The bag does not come with a matching car.

Stewart's handbag is more modest than that. It is at least 11 years old and is a favorite handbag because it is so roomy, perfect for files, said one of the people in her camp. It closely resembles a camel-color leather version that's offered on eBay for $10,999. For such a significant outlay of dollars, one receives a bag that is handmade by artisans. Its hardware is gold-plated. It comes with a small padlock and keys. It was introduced in 1984 and named after British film actor Jane Birkin, for whom it was designed. And it is imbued with all the status and mythology that Hermes can muster.

Women who are interested in purchasing a Birkin would do well to go to eBay to do their shopping. It is virtually impossible for the typical shopper _ even one brandishing a platinum American Express card or a large wad of cash _ to walk into an Hermes boutique and purchase a Birkin. The bag has a waiting list that has grown to the absurd length of 2{ years, so the French company has closed it. Now there is a wait to get on the waiting list. Unless, of course, one is a celebrity with all the privileges that affords.

Sex and the City helped to thrust the Birkin and its lore into the consciousness of those outside its demographic. In one episode, Samantha, played by Kim Cattrall, so desperately and impatiently yearns for a Birkin that she tells the Hermes publicity director _ in a foul-mouthed tirade _ that she needs the bag for one of her clients, actor Lucy Liu, who plays herself. The waiting list is quickly dispensed with, and a Birkin arrives in its full orange-boxed, cosseted glory.

For Stewart, carrying a bag surrounded by such a thick cloud of wealth and privilege was ill-advised. Appearances play too important a role in a jury trial. In Stewart's case, polls have shown that though some observers see a successful businesswoman who is unfairly under assault, others see an arrogant woman who believed that in her rise to the top, she also rose above the law. Stewart's decision to accessorize her businesslike ensemble with a Birkin was the equivalent of a male mogul arriving at the courthouse with an expensive stogie clenched between his teeth. Stewart's Birkin was a hand-stitched symbol of the underlying issues, the privileges of success, that have so agitated her detractors. Her advisers have weighed in on a host of issues related to her image, but her choice of handbag was not among them.

Her second day in court, the Birkin was not on display in front of the cameras. But Stewart had the bag with her and reportedly said she plans to use it frequently throughout the trial. Eleven years ago, the Birkin was just an expensive, classic bag. For Stewart, it may have been a talisman of her hard work, dedication and perseverance. Now, she may see the bag simply as practical. But over time, the Birkin has become a cultural emblem of elitism, privilege and celebrity. It is the bag that money alone cannot buy. And it is a reminder to everyone else that those who are famous always seem to have the advantage.