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I am a person given to discretion. The contents of my brain, bed, inbox, and medicine cabinet are not up for public consumption. But the contents of my purse soon may be—at least, if designers have anything to say about it.
Fashion’s biggest players have fallen head-over-Lucite-heels for all things see-through this season, albeit in their own signature ways. Chanel showed extreme over-the-knee boots and transparent totes (the better to weather the show’s indoor waterfall); Valentino nestled smaller pouches inside clear Rockstudded clutches; and Céline’s Phoebe Philo presented a “plastic” bag—elevating it to cult must-have status.
The young designer crowd got in on it, too. Shayne Oliver’s debut show for Helmut Lang featured an oversize acrylic briefcase emblazoned with the brand’s logo—making “transparency” more than a boardroom buzzword. Collaborator extraordinaire Virgil Abloh linked up with Jimmy Choo on “glass slippers” for his Princess Diana–inspired Off-White show, where models donned polybagged stilettos and pumps. It’s a daring look, to be sure. One that Rihanna has already endorsed, having braved the curbs of New York in a pair.
But with the exception of protective runway coverings ripped off moments before a show begins, clear plastic isn’t generally equated with high fashion. Its associations include (but certainly are not limited to) cling film on leftovers, snap-on galoshes, shower liners, and those rain bonnets women of a certain age wear after their biweekly styling sessions at the salon. For football fans, clear carryalls mean “stadium-approved.” Headed to the Super Bowl or an SEC game? Stash your belongings in a totally see-through bag—gallon-size freezer bags recommended!—and you’ll breeze right through security.
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But how to explain lowbrow plastic’s proliferation among the hautest of fashion houses? And really, who wants to be so exposed? Clearly (pun intended), I needed to take the trend for a test run. Enter the aforementioned enormous Helmut Lang briefcase. The plan: Carry it as my work bag. Keep in mind that every day, I shuffle through this world with a morass of ugly or downright embarrassing items, from a First Amendment bookmark to a Rite Aid Wellness+ card that looks like it survived Pompeii. Staring into the depths of my go-to leather bucket bag, I realize I need to edit my life to be more suitable for the gaze of others. The usual bottom-of-the-bag detritus—gum wrappers, a rogue Tic Tac—are the first to go. Other items I give a bit more thought: that mini hairbrush I rarely use; the portable charger that’s never charged. I consider them carefully before deciding to ditch them, my possessions reduced to an aesthetically pleasing few.
Mid–Kondo method, it occurs to me that this is the exact sort of hypercuration many of us do when creating an Instagram post. Social media has made us all editors. Perhaps a clear bag is just a physical continuation of our compulsion to erase, remove, or heavily filter the unsightly aspects of our lives. The hope, of course, is that what we present for outside consumption speaks directly to our personal narrative and brand.
Then again, long before shelfies and flat lays, red-carpet reporters were lobbing “What’s in your bag?” at A-listers—the implication being that we are, in some ways, the junk that we carry. To lay all of it bare is to telegraph who we are at a specific moment. Currently, I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and a photo editor in the office spots the book sandwiched between my wallet and assorted papers and strikes up a conversation about it. Generally, I’m restrained about sharing my interests at work. But the bag, though a bit cumbersome, makes connecting easy. To wit, a woman stops me on the street to share that she’d love to display it as home decor—namely, to house her coffee- table books safely away from her dog’s destructive claws. We end up conversing for a while, and I give her my business card.
Pleased with the bag’s capacity to help identify like minds in the wild (even if it does give me a sense of being surveilled: “Under his eye,” indeed), I turn my attention to Abloh’s plastic-bagged shoes. I slip into the five-inch heels, each outfitted in the shoe equivalent of an emergency poncho, and head to a Broadway play. Rihanna I am not, but I do get a lot of stares. Unlike the briefcase, though, the shoes don’t lead to any networking.
This could be explained by what Sandra Choi, creative director of Jimmy Choo, says is a certain “look at me/don’t look at me” quality to clear accessories. “The plastic element is about protection, in my mind,” she tells me. They’re at once voyeuristic and closed off, shrouded as they are in their plastic covering. Abloh tells me that wrapping the shoes was part of creating “our very own living, breathing Cinderella story” for the show, a way of playing with Diana’s accessible, “People’s Princess” image. However, while the fairy-tale glass slipper is fragile, plastic has an uncanny edge, “analogous to Diana’s personality that was exposed to the real world,” he says. She was a woman we thought we knew, but who was enveloped in the same slick layering that encases the British tabloids she once starred in.
In other words, fashion’s journey into clear territory may not be about exhibitionism at all. Maybe it’s just about security—an insurance policy, of sorts, against disaster, both natural and man-made. (Note to Melania Trump: If you’re going to wear stilettos to a flood-ravaged city, might I suggest ones that at least nod to water resistance?) Psychologically, transparency provides a sense of safety from unthinkable acts of terror. Wrapped up in clingy, elements-repelling film, one is more likely to feel safe. And while not foolproof, a see-through bag would make concealing a weapon at least somewhat more difficult for a would-be assailant.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, though. Not everything about the trend boils down to political and psychological turmoil. This really falls into place when I carry the briefcase, empty, into the office of ELLE’s fashion and style director, Samira Nasr. “What is the utility of such an item?” I ask. She looks at it with the cool, practiced eye of someone used to evaluating even the most arcane of trends. “There is no utility—it’s just a showpiece,” she says. Which really cuts to the chase. It’s not for anything. It just offers ridiculous fun. And if that’s not enough to sell you on it, there’s one big perk, so obvious it initially escaped me: “If you drop something on it, you can actually wipe it off!” Choi says. “That’s quite cool.”
This article originally appears in the February 2018 issue of ELLE.