With over 2,000 handbags featured in its collections, both as objects and as depictions in artworks, one wonders why it is only now that the Victoria & Albert Museum is presenting a major exhibition on the ultimate fashion accessory.
Could it be a lockdown inspiration since bags were just sitting in the closet at home, so one had all the time to contemplate one’s purchases and determine which pieces were worthy acquisitions?
Function and utility
Titled “Bags: Inside and Out,” the exhibit opens with “Functions and Utility,” which illustrates how historic events shape our lives and the bags that we use. Queen Mary’s 1940s handbag, custom-made to carry a gas mask during the war, draws a parallel to the current pandemic when we are battling a virus with large totes carrying facemasks and disinfectants.
View this post on Instagram
A 16th-century silk burse intricately embroidered with silver-gilt thread and beads was both functional — in protecting the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England, used to make wax seal impressions applied to royal documents — as well as symbolic, with no expense spared to project the regal power and lavishness of the queen’s court.
The burse was made of linen previously but became more elaborate with Elizabeth I’s ascension since she wanted to craft a dominant propaganda image of herself as the total embodiment of English power.
The first handbags were actually pockets attached to women’s waists and worn under skirts. When high-waisted gowns became fashionable at the end of the 18th century, these were no longer practical so reticule bags they could carry became necessary. It was not much bigger than a burse, just enough to carry powder, rouge, a fan, perfume, and visiting cards.
The changing modes of transport are another phenomenon in history that influence the shape of bags, as seen in a Louis Vuitton Malle Haute trunk from the early 1900s owned by the American socialite Emilie Busbey Grigsby. Glued paper labels reveal that the trunk accompanied her on many of the most significant ocean liners like the Lusitania and the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship.
For those going by foot, on the other hand, a 1900 cotton shoulder bag embellished with glass beads and silver suits the travelers of Kachin State, Myanmar, just fine.
The Philippine tampipi — the rectangular box woven from natural fiber — is our own traditional traveling bag, used both for the journey as luggage and as wardrobe upon reaching one’s destination. The native bayong, also of natural fiber, is the traditional bag for shopping in the wet market and now comes in fashionable colors and designs, which make it a chic everyday bag in the city.
Status and identity
The second section, “Status and Identity,” which explores the powerful and influential world of celebrity endorsement, is where you see the beginnings of the “It Bag” and for women who bought them, it’s an affirmation that their investments were judicious ones:
- The 1961 Gucci Jackie bag named after Jackie Kennedy, who was spotted using the bag to shield herself from paparazzi;
- The Hermès Kelly named in honor of Grace Kelly in 1977 after she used it in a Hitchcock movie;
- The 1984 Hermès Birkin specially made for Jane Birkin after the company’s CEO met the singer on a flight and she complained how no bag suited her needs; and
- The 1995 Lady Dior named in honor of Princess Diana, who was spotted using it at many high-profile events.
By the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the “It Bag” phenomenon reached its height, with bags like the 1997 Fendi baguette, which sold over a million pieces thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker, who was wearing it in an episode of Sex and the City when she got mugged; and a 2006 gold Louis Vuitton Speedy bag popularized by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
Just as these covetable bags were symbols of status, the Launer tote of Margaret Thatcher was a symbol of power and femininity. “She was the only one in the room with a handbag so it became a symbol of her politics,” according to exhibit curator Lucia Savi.
Many times, bags are used as a public platform, a blank canvas for slogans, personal statements and political messages, from an 1825 anti-slavery work bag to the “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” by Anya Hindmarch and “My Body My Business” handbag by artist and activist Michele Pred.
View this post on Instagram
The last section, “Design and Making,” examines the experimental forms created by designers, the bag’s role as whimsical subversion as well as an opportunity for artistic collaboration. A 17th-century purse in the shape of the frog predates by three centuries Thom Browne’s handbag in the form of his dog Hector and a Chanel bag transformed into a milk carton.
View this post on Instagram
Multi-disciplinary collaborations have also resulted in unusual and often limited-edition pieces such as Prada’s nylon bag reimagined by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima to allow the wearer to transform it with zippers and detachable pouches; and Bethan Laura Wood’s reworking of a structured Valextra handbag with a squiggly “toothpaste” handle.
Ultimately, what gives a bag value is not its logo or celebrity status but how it has served its owner well because of its design and quality of workmanship that has stood the test of time, just like the black bag of Jane Birkin named after her. Bearing her initials, with the residue of fun stickers that she liked applying to it, it has a weathered look of supple leather that has acquired a patina reflecting the extraordinary life and spirit of its owner.
She obviously loved the bag so much and used it during many important moments of her life, giving it a high sentimental value, yet she was able to put it to better use by letting it go for a 1994 auction to support her advocacy of fighting AIDS. With a provenance like that, it’s no wonder the bag is a symbol of timeless luxury and has become the most recognized and coveted handbag of our time.