November 13, 2013 | 9 Comments

The Guardian Angel Handbag (Vlieger and Vandam)

From the curators: Carolien Vlieger and Hein Vandam, trained as a graphic designer and an industrial designer, respectively, began producing the Guardian Angel handbag in 2002 as a tongue-in-cheek response to what they felt was the overblown media reaction to street violence in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where they had recently moved. At first, they began by using second-hand purses—maintaining the handles and clasps, but replacing the body of the handbag with colored, pressed felt that revealed the form of a knife or gun. Positive reactions to the design propelled them into production; they were featured in MoMA’s SAFE: Design Takes on Risk exhibition in 2005 and have kept the company reproducing and reinventing the designs ever since, most recently in colored and embossed leather.

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.


Do aggressive clothes always signal aggressive intentions?

  1. November 16, 2013, 6:03 am


    Too bad the Q asks if it “always” signals intent. To that, I say “no”. Had that restrictive word not been there I’d have felt invited to discuss the matter..

  2. November 16, 2013, 9:33 pm

    Constantin Boym

    Founding partner, Boym Partners Inc

    There is hardly anything violent or aggressive in the Guardian Angel bags, or for that matter, in Philippe Stark’s AK 47 lamps for Flos. In all their aspects – material sophistication, high price, stylish rendering of the item – these objects speak of intellectual entertainment rather than of street culture. The signifier of an iconic gun has a long lineage in modern art, from surrealism to pop-art and beyond. Andy Warhol painted a Gun, and Oldenburg did many in his famous Ray Gun Pavilion.
    It is typical for product design to follow in the footsteps of art movements of yesteryear. The signifier, of course, still has relevance. Yet in this new context, the gun’s true intention is to seduce rather than provoke.

  3. November 18, 2013, 5:27 am

    Paola Antonelli

    Fair enough. Please scratch the ‘always’ from the Q and tell us what you think, please.
    The Curators

  4. December 5, 2013, 8:10 pm

    Melinda Zoephel

    I agree that these handbags appear to have no real aggressive intentions. On the designers’ online store (linked at the end of the curatorial statement), the knife or gun symbol is interchangeable with a cutesy bow that says “My Red Carpet Clutch.”

    As for intimidating a potential attacker, does anyone actually look at these bags and think that there is a real knife or gun nestled in the protrusion? Or does the simple fact that a woman is willing to carry a bag emblazoned with an aggressive symbol mean that she must be an aggressive person? As far as I can tell, it’s much more likely to be taken as an ironic jab at violence rather than a serious “Beware.”

    That said, I like these handbags as an ironic statement about violence. I just doubt their supposed seriously aggressive content.

  5. December 7, 2013, 7:17 pm

    Meghan Adamo

    Defense or Defending?

    The Guardian Angel Handbag and the questioned posed – “Do aggressive clothes always signal aggressive intentions?” – bring to mind ideas about defense mechanisms and how they relate to things used in physically defending oneself. In general, everyday clothing can be used by people as a defense mechanism, but rarely to defend the body. Some people wear aggressive clothing to genuinely reflect an aggressive personality that can be demonstrated if provoked. However sometimes shy or timid people wear aggressive clothing simply in order to appear aggressive and keep people away. This is an example of using clothing as a defense mechanism. There’s no real defending going on here, just keeping people at a distance. Articles of clothing can also be used as defense objects. A shoe can be removed and thrown at someone to slow an attack or a purse can be used to hit an aggressor. Even a sweater could be used to throw over someone’s face to temporarily disorient them. But these objects do not have to be, and frequently are not aggressive in their nature or tone. It would seem that the Guardian Angel Handbag straddles the line between defense mechanism and object of defense. On the one hand, the raised form of knives and handguns could be used as a deterrent for potential attackers. On the other hand, these bags are large, and made out of sturdy materials, and appear to have some metal parts. They could certainly do some damage if swung hard enough at someone attacking the possessor. It’s not just these handbags; all objects are potentially violent. One can’t say for certain if everyone who owns one of these bags has aggressive intentions. But it seems that even if they do not carry it in order to keep people away, they would likely be able to defend themselves if need be.

  6. December 9, 2013, 1:59 am

    Yoko Wang

    Aggression shows vulnerability.

    A gun or a knife on the handbag is not terrifying at all. Showing off a violent signal implies an opposite meaning – weakness. Dress is not only a physical protection of the external body; it also shelters inner fear. We use fabric to cover our bodies because we feel embarrassed to be naked; we put on fancy clothes for we are afraid of being ignored; we change looks to avoid being dull. So, clothing is actually a disguise, a tool that people use to conceal some facts, but at the same time, reveal the wearers themselves. The Guardian Angel Bag works the same way. From a psychological perspective, the bag represents vulnerability. By wearing it, the owner sets up a gap between herself and everyone around her. To the wearer, the bag is a tool for self-protection and it symbolizes distance; to other people, the bag shows an attitude of resistance. Just as the name implies, this is a bag that can guard you. The bag gives its owners strength and security. In this way, putting on the bag conveys the message of “I need protection.” Isn’t the wearer conveys a message of vulnerability by wearing it? We dress up to gain the power we do not have, therefore, aggressive clothes do not always signal aggressive intentions. The Guardian Angle Bag is not terrifying at all.

  7. December 9, 2013, 4:07 am

    Miriam Feldman

    Two Perspectives on the Guardian Angel Handbag

    Though the concept may now be dated, women are often represented as helpless, defenseless, and in need of male protection. Feminity is still associated with notions of politeness, kindness, and restraint. However, as a result of these constructions, women are often the victims of many different types of violence. The Guardian Angel Handbag is a commentary on violence committed against women. Though on one hand it is perpetuating a culture of violence, on the other it is a way to comment on the fact that violent behavior against women is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Perhaps it will make somebody think twice about cat-calling on the street, or to think twice about the idea that women are supposed to be innocent and docile.

    Another way to read these bags is to see them as a reflection of the increasing banality of, and ambivalent feelings towards, violent imagery. Movies, advertisements, and video games have inundated us with violent action and imagery, to the point that these objects lose their significance. Perhaps the bags are part of a normalization of violence.

  8. August 31, 2014, 4:33 pm

    […] The Guardian Angel Handbag (Vlieger and Vandam) – Design and Violence Same thing? __________________ You`ve been Thunder~Struck. Molon labe […]

  9. February 25, 2015, 2:49 am

    Lynn Kim

    How would the society accept the design?

    To answer the question, I would say that aggressive clothes do not always signal aggressive intentions; rather they always imply inner meanings against a certain problem proposed. Though design aspects of this sort of consumer products may seem aggressive (with the fact that the subject matter is weapon), it doesn’t mean that the way our society would think they mean is aggressive. As the shapes of weapons such as gun and knife are designed upon the surface of the Guardian Angle Bag, it reveals strong opposition to some sort of crimes or violence that would have lead the design to seem like a sort of protection for women. However, does this help social prejudice that women are inferior to men, to be diminished? While symbolizing violence in our society, does the bag also set up a solution, in which perspectives of our society towards this problematic phenomenon (an increase of violence and sexual harassment towards women) can be affected in a better way? As a woman wears this sort of bag in public spaces, can she look either terrifying or strong to others? or would she just reveal her weakness and objection against men’s superiority in our society’s perspectives?