The lunchbox purse: hardly functional, subjectively beautiful, totally '90s
Wallet holder, cigarette crusher.
From 1993 to 1996, I carried a lunchbox as a purse. Now as an adult who carries what I call a Mary-Kate bag -- a black hole/abyss that holds keys, a liter of water, a wallet, various snacks, a change of clothes, a collection of Nora Ephron essays, a reporter's notebook, 700 pens and a ho-on-the-go kit complete with toothbrush and a full face of make-up -- I can't imagine carrying around a small metal box that holds everything I could possibly need. But in honor of Paileontology: Vintage Lunch Box Exhibit happening at Blue Dot Studio this weekend, here are some scattered thoughts on the vintage lunchbox purse craze of the early '90s.
Looking at the laundry list of things I currently carry in my life/bag, I wonder what in the hell I was carrying in a purse when I was fourteen, anyway. I couldn't have needed much more room than the lunchbox provided. I mean, I couldn't drive yet, so I hadn't acquired the massive keychain I have now with twenty keys on it and a plastic placard that reads "I Love My Bad Ass Attitude." I didn't have a cell phone because in 1994, those things took up entire suitcases. I certainly wasn't sleeping in strange places, so I didn't have a miniature arsenal of personal products.
I did have a wallet -- though I had no license, I did have money from my job making $4 an hour scooping face-planted kids off the floor of a gymnasium. I also had a pager at some point, which were THE SHIT in terms of teenage communication in the '90s (and a proper accoutrement for drug dealers too, as some of my best girlfriends who were cocaine runners could attest.) Maybe there was some lipgloss and candy jewelry in there (candy jewelry was also very much a part of my "Kinderwhore" aesthetic that I will describe below).
And, of course, there was a Bettie Page image-donning Zippo and soft pack of Camels or "Buzz" cigarettes if I was broke -- because those were 99 cents a pack. I never quite understood why I bought soft packs in the first place -- nothing dies quicker in an overturned lunchbox purse quite like a poorly constructed paper and cellophane container full of tobacco. (Were hard packs not invented yet? This was the era before pre-bougie cigs in fancy boxes were mainstream, so I can't recall.) Sometimes the cellophane wasn't even there to protect, because everyone knows that cigarette pack cellophane is best used to hold your bud. We called weed "bud" in the '90s, just FYI.
Kinderwhore: Babes In Toyland's Kat Bjelland with a legit lunch pail purse.
But the lunchbox purse wasn't about functionality. It was a statement. Looking back, I see my lunchbox purse as a direct connection to the Kinderwhore look I was so quaintly trying to emulate. An appearance so stridently Courtney Love that it once caused an "upstanding" member of the George Washington High School student council to ask, "Excuse me, are you a virgin? You don't look like one." My memory is hazy, but I hope I responded with, "I don't know, guy in a Polo shirt. Are you a virgin? Because you look like one."
The lunchbox trend also beautifully coincided with the '70s throwback style that was hitting the Alternative Nation-television waves, hard. The 1994 If I Were a Carpenter Carpenters tribute album introduced me to the awkward brother-sister duo in such a way that, much to my parents dismay, made me like their music. It was a genius gateway to the '70s that I wouldn't otherwise have had, featuring bands I loved -- like Babes In Toyland, Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife -- playing songs a hardcore teenage '90s me would have deemed utterly lame otherwise.
Like the Carpenters tribute, there was the Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits and School House Rock! Rocks compilation albums. The records also featured many of my favorite bands covering songs of a childhood I had no connection to, because I wasn't born yet. These albums seemed like part of the same general decade-specific aesthetic. (Especially because, the more vintage your lunchbox purse, the better -- so a '70s-era Charlie's Angels or H.R. Pufnstuf tin pail made you extra cool.)
I would later come to better understand this nostalgia once I was old enough to see teenagers mimicking what my precious '90s looked like to them -- children born in my favorite decade who had no clue what it was really like to be there.
Regrettably, the '90s were not like things are now, where we can and will take pictures of ourselves at every waking moment, whether on the toilet or semi-enjoying a concert, so I don't have photographs of every outfit I wore to school, or pictures of any of the ten lunchbox purses I owned. It's probably better that way, though; it's easier to wax nostalgic when photographic evidence isn't plentiful. That way you can fill in lapses in memory with much better stories about a time when computers were only used in a place called a "computer lab" and a lunchbox was all you needed to carry your whole life in.
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