This commentary was commissioned by MoMA curator Paula Antonelli and design scholar Jamer Hunt as part of a MoMA online-exhibition Design and Violence
Should I be offended or delighted by Vlieger & Vandam’s bright red Guardian Angel handbag? Love it or hate it, this seemingly benign object, with its sinister edge, elicits myriad conflicting reactions and associations.
I, the cultural critic, can’t figure out if the Guardian Angel is art or commerce. If handbags can be branded with L’s, V’s, and endless C’s that not only advertise the designer but also broadcast the sartorial ambitions of the handbag holder, then why not brand a bag with the profile of a knife? If the knife forms a sign, Roland Barthes would ask: what does it signify?
I, the fashion maven, am curious as to how my hands would grip the Guardian Angel’s handles, how its profile would hang from my shoulder and fall against the curve of my body. How will it feel when I wrap my arms around it to squeeze it, unzip it to breathe in its scent? Is it soft and supple or will it be scratchy and stiff? If I run my fingers across its surface to caress the outline of the knife, will I have the instinctual desire recoil for fear that its blade might slice my skin? Would its bright red, boiled felt exterior mask and absorb the trickle of my imaginary blood?
I, the New Yorker, wonder if the handbag will be my Guardian Angel. At one time I, along with all of New York City, did have Guardian Angels patrolling my streets. These were community-organized safety patrols of young men—and on occasion women—who donned bright red wool berets and disco-era satin jackets emblazoned with “Guardian Angels” on the back. They were enlisted to fight crime in the mean streets of a fiscally strapped New York City in the late 1970s. The Guardian Angels made their debut back in the day, when purse snatching and chain grabbing on the city’s subways was a menace to many New Yorkers—but a right passage for others. The de-industrialization of the region had produced a state of abandonment among the city’s population and its built environment. The roving bands of Guardian Angels represented the rise of citizen-led coalitions that fulfilled those public services that the city could no longer adequately provide—a sign that a host of public services would soon be privatized as the neo-liberal economy inaugurated its decades-long ascendance.
As a woman, I reflect upon how the Guardian Angel signifies violence, and if so, then violence against whom? Is it a weapon tucked away in the purse of a stalker on the prowl in her vertiginous black stilettos, perhaps to launch a plot of revenge ignited by a fatal attraction? The truth of violence and women, however, is far less fantastical. Most women are not the instigators of violence, but its target. Soldiers use rape as a weapon to claim their spoils of war and terrorize civilian populations under siege. The brutal wartime violation of women’s bodies inflicts physical and psychological damage upon them and their families long after the conflict has ended. Then there is domestic violence, where men use emotional and physical force to control, demean, and destroy the lives of women. I’m reminded of one of the most recent highly publicized cases of domestic violence—the leaked police photographs from 2009 that documented the bruised and cut face of singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty after she was savagely attacked in a parked car by her then boyfriend, fellow singer Chris Brown. Violence on women is a reality, and its toll is irreparable for many. Would the Guardian Angel bag’s knife profile be a sign that women will defend themselves against these forms of patriarchal violence and intimidation?
Amid these many contradictory associations, perhaps the Guardian Angel handbag need not signify anything meaningful at all, other than that it is a beautiful, yet complicated, object of consumer culture. Walter Benjamin once observed of Baudelaire, fashion, prostitutes, and the Paris arcades that “ambiguity is the pictorial image of dialectics, the law of dialectics seen at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image therefore a dream image. Such an image is presented as pure commodity: as fetish.” Such are the images of knives and guns imprinted on stylish handbags for sale by young designers whose provocative creations become incorporated into wardrobes and museum collections. Such are images uploaded by the paparazzi who, with their cameras, stalked a fierce and resilient Rihanna walking the streets of New York City in 2010—her Guardian Angel handbag confidently by her side.