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In 1988, borne on the wings of a growing popular interest in all things postmodern, art dealer Frank Maresca got together with plastic purse enthusiast New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb and published a splashy, photo-packed coffee table book on the subject. Oh, sweet irony. I'd spent years scrounging the dingiest junk shops to feed my collection, and suddenly the flea markets and antique stores were teeming with Lucite. Problem was, if it was made of unnatural materials and had a handle, you couldn't get near it. In the great American tradition of exploitation, the vendors were making a killing soaking the consumer. And a hundred bucks or more a shot was too rich for my blood. These were dark times indeed.

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The market has dipped in the intervening years, and scrupulous treasure hunting has yielded me more trophies—a curvy, honey colored pouch resplendent in royal blue beading, an iridescent white flying saucer on a fat chain, a delicate flowerpot with lace suspended in its resinous surface like prehistoric bugs in amber, and others. Most of the time, they rest in strategic areas around the house, but I gladly find excuses to trot one of them out on the town. I strut proudly down the street, cutting a swath of retro chic as the pointy edge of my purse whaps insistently against my tender thigh. They may be creaking towards middle age, but they still look great.

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Behind the counter of some better department stores, the plastic purse still lives on, albeit in no-frills evening clutch varieties.Unfortunately, these glorified prom night fake ID receptacles are usually sad little egg-shaped affairs, more closely resembling early 1970's pantyhose containers than their own elegantly madcap ancestors.

There's a long and noble tradition of aesthetics butting in on the everyday, and women's adornments have always been fertile ground for fanciful design. But the plastic handbag was different. It was beautiful in an entirely new way—beautiful like the late 20th century woman herself.Tough and solid, capable of taking and delivering a few knocks. No matter what the shape or color, its design conveys grace, fortitude, and cheerful individuality. Like the corset or the miniskirt or the shoulderpad, it's a metaphor for the female state of the nation. Handbag Graphic Six

You can keep your cookie cutter Guccis and your teeny weeny backpacks. Every little raver chick and her brother has a BionicWoman lunch box by now. It's been nearly fifty years since some unknown fashion follower toted her keys and lipstick in that three dollar flea market find on my shelf, but to me, it still represents an ideal of simultaneous strength and loveliness, a repository of nostalgia and futurism.I know I'm a woman with a lot of baggage—but I wouldn't have it any other way.    </end>

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Illustrations by Jen Dalton


MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS is the Table Talk host at Salon. She also writes for Wired, The Nation, and the San Francisco Review of Books. She will be using the profits from this piece on a swinging little number she spotted in a secondhand store.

JENNIFER DALTON is a writer and old-media visual artist working in painting and sculpture. She is currently the art editor of Fizz Magazine, and has written on art and culture for Cover Magazine, Coagula Art Journal, and Ben is Dead, among others. She moved to New York City from Los Angeles and is pursuing an MFA degree at Pratt Institute.

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