Jenny Walton had coveted an Hermès bag for years before finally buying one last fall.
“They’re never going to go out of style,” Ms. Walton, 33, offered as a reason she wanted to own one of the brand’s handbags, which can cost four, five, even six figures.
Hermès’s bags include the Kelly and its more famous sister, the Birkin, both of which have long been regarded as symbols of status. Particularly the Birkin, which for decades had a reasonable claim to the title of rarest handbag in the world.
That reputation, for the most part, has not changed. But as a growing resale market has made Hermès bags available to more people — reality TV stars, say, or those whose wealth does not span generations — the image that the bags convey, according to some, depends on their condition. To that (small) group, the more pristine the bag, the more gauche its wearer seems.
“Real Housewives have closets full and that has a kind of tacky look,” said Ms. Walton, an American illustrator and influencer who lives in Milan. She bought her Hermès bag — a secondhand, purplish-brown Kelly with gold-plated hardware — in Paris at Resee, a designer consignment store, for 3,000 euros, or about $2,900 at the time. With visible markings from use, she said, “it just looks cooler.”
Candice Bergen has used Hermès bags as a canvas for paintings. Julia Fox has a Birkin bag with slashes on its edges. (In a video on TikTok, she claimed the slashes were a result of a machete attack.) The novelist Danielle Steel has carried a Kelly bag that shows its age. Mary-Kate Olsen also has a Kelly bag, which is so faded, its original color is hard to discern. “Though the bag costs upwards of $10,000, she treats it like the overstuffed briefcase of a used-car salesman,” Liana Satenstein, a former senior fashion writer at Vogue.com, wrote of Ms. Olsen.
Though Hermès bags have always been pricey, they haven’t always been so rarefied. According to the company, the Birkin, released in 1984, was born from a conversation that year between the actress Jane Birkin, whom the style is named for, and Jean-Louis Dumas, then the chief executive of Hermès. While seated next to one another on a flight from Paris to London, Ms. Birkin told Mr. Dumas that she needed a bag for all the things she had to tote around for her children.
According to Rachel Koffsky, the international head of handbags at the auction house Christie’s, Ms. Birkin is said to have described the Birkin bag as a great rain hat. Ms. Koffsky added that Ms. Birkin would personalize her bags with stickers and key chains.
Hermès’s Haut à Courroies bag also had utilitarian origins: It was designed to transport saddles and riding boots. Last month, a visibly worn Haut à Courroies bag owned by the fashion editor André Leon Talley sold for more than $32,000 at auction at Christie’s.
In 2018, Ryan Reineck, 36, an art director who lives in Manhattan, paid 6,800 euros, or about $8,300 at the time, for what he described as a “messed up” Haut à Courroies bag. Its imperfections give the bag character and “a history,” Mr. Reineck said.
W. David Marx, the author of the book “Status and Culture,” said that for luxury goods to function as status symbols, they need cachet, an association with high-status lifestyles and to be used in a way that is not only to mark status.
Someone carrying a beat-up Hermès bag suggests that they are not simply wearing it because of its label, according to Mr. Marx. It can give the impression, he wrote in an email, that “I don’t even care if it gets beat up, because I’m not using this for status marking.”
“It’s just a bag,” he wrote. “Who cares if it’s beat up?”