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How the Handbag Became the Ultimate Fashion Accessory

An exhibition at the V&A in London traces the long history of the purse, from Elizabeth I’s court to “Sex and the City”

A whimsical bag designed to look like a European horse chestnut, made by contemporary British designer Emily Joe Gibbs (Lol Johnson / Victoria and Albert Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

From Winston Churchill to Sarah Jessica Parker, everyone needs a place to keep their things. That’s where the bag—one of fashion’s most ubiquitous and practical accessories, has come in handy throughout history, according to a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

Titled “Bags: Inside Out,” the show, which is slated to run through September, features more than 300 bags, from tiny purses to military rucksacks. Though the museum is currently closed to visitors amid the United Kingdom’s latest Covid-19 lockdown, style enthusiasts can peek inside the exhibition online, watch a short documentary about how contemporary bags are made from sponsor Mulberry, or read an article about some of the show’s highlights.

“[T]his exhibition offers an understanding and insight into the function, status, design and making of bags across the world and throughout history,” says curator Lucia Savi in a statement. “These portable, yet functional accessories have long fascinated men and women with their dual nature that combines private and public.”

A printed silk satin reticule bag, designed by Samuel Lines, made by Female Society for Birmingham, circa 1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum)
The original Birkin bag, pictured here, belonged to Jane Birkin and was made in 1984. Birkin was fond of putting stickers directly on the bag—here, the faint outlines of stickers are still visible. (Les 3 Marches de Catherine B / Victoria and Albert Museum)
A frog purse, circa 1600 (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)
A chatelaine, 1863-85, made from cut steel (Victoria and Albert Museum)

As Rachel Cooke writes in a review for the Observer, predecessors to the modern purse evolved out of necessity. In 19th-century Europe, for instance, women would wear chatelaines. These waist-high appendages resembled a brooch with multiple attachments, like a sort of decorative Swiss Army knife dangling from one’s waist. In “Bags: Inside Out,” a chatelaine dated to around 1863 features 13 hanging tools, including a pair of scissors, purse, thimble, miniature notebook and magnifying glass.

“The symbolism … is fascinating,” Cooke notes. “It speaks as loudly as any mangle of the burdens and responsibilities of women—and yet it works, too, as an adornment, an exquisite triumph wrested from duty.”

Bags were often created as luxury items that conveyed a person’s status. Seamstresses in 20th-century Pakistan would have embroidered a dowry purse included in the show in advance of a high-status wedding. In 18th-century Paris, workshops of artists labored to cover a small purse in beads using a technique known as sablé (meaning covered with sand), making for an exceptionally pricey design, per a separate statement.

Though designed for beauty, some bags also reflect the realities of war: H. Wald and Co., for example, designed a reptile-skin tote bag that could skillfully conceal a person’s state-ordered gas mask in World War II–era Britain.

Fendi Baguette bag used by Sarah Jessica Parker in "Sex and the City" (Fendi / Victoria and Albert Museum)
A Japanese inrō, pictured here, would have been used by men to carry seals, writing materials and medicines. (Victoria and Albert Museum)
A gold purse with pearls, circa 1855, Dehli (Victoria and Albert Museum)

And, while the handbag has come to be traditionally associated with women, men have benefited from bags, too. Between 1587 and 1591, Sir Christopher Hatton, a member of Elizabeth I’s court, likely used a “burse” made of silk, silver-gilt thread and sequins to house the Tudor queen’s silver matrix, which was used to create wax seal impressions on official decrees and proclamations.

In 18th-century Japan, men wore inrōs, tiered containers that hung from the obi, or waist-sash, and carried personal seals, ink pads and medicines. The inrō in the V&A exhibition includes compartments for kanryō, a liver calmer, and saikō, an aphrodisiac, per the statement. Also featured in the exhibition is a bright red despatch box used by Churchill when he was secretary of state for the colonies in the early 1920s.

Bridging the personal and political, some handbags were designed to make a statement. In 1827, an abolition advocacy group called the Female Society for Birmingham created a small reticule bag emblazoned with the image of a black enslaved woman nursing her child. Women in the society used bags such as these to carry and distribute anti-slavery campaign materials.

As Olivia Petter notes in a review for the Independent, the V&A exhibition also boasts an impressive array of modern bags that will impress any fashion-savvy museumgoer, including the original Birkin bag that Hermès made for actress Jane Birkin in 1984. (Today, these designs are notorious as some of the most expensive handbags in the world.) Also featured is the iconic purple sequined Fendi purse that Sarah Jessica Parker wore as Carrie Bradshaw during a pivotal “Sex and the City” episode. Mid-robbery, the character corrects a thief attempting to steal her accessory: It’s not just a “bag,” she proclaims. “It’s a baguette.”

Bags: Inside Out” is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London through September 12.

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