Its opening date may have been twice delayed by lockdown, but the V&A’s Bags: Inside Out exhibition is well worth the wait. Designer totes, vanity cases, despatch boxes, military rucksacks… no bag has been overlooked by curator Lucia Savi in her quest to showcase the function, status and craftsmanship of this, the most ubiquitous of accessories. Opening this Saturday, it’s handbags at the ready…
If you’ve always dreamed of clapping eyes on the actual purple, sequinned Fendi ‘Baguette’ that was famously stolen from Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, at gunpoint in Sex and the City (to quote Carrie when the assailant asks her to hand over her bag: “Oh, it’s not a bag. It’s a Baguette”), you’re in luck.
The iconic envelope-shaped handbag is just one of 300-plus exhibits in the latest blockbuster show from the Victoria & Albert Museum, Bags: Inside Out, which opens this weekend.
“The V&A has previously staged exhibitions dedicated to shoes and hats, but never to the bag,” Savi tells The Glossary. “This will showcase the museum’s rich collection, as well as providing an opportunity to acquire new pieces, historical and contemporary, to fill in the inevitable gaps.”
From an exquisitely embroidered gold and red burse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England right through to the dazzlingly gold Louis Vuitton ‘Monogram Miroir’ Speedy designed by Marc Jacobs, via a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the Second World War, each exhibit provides an unprecedented insight into our enduring fascination with the much-loved accessory.
Particular standouts include the first-ever Hermès Birkin bag, made for actress and singer Jane Birkin in 1984 after a chance encounter with Jean-Louis Dumas on a flight inspired the CEO of Hermès to create a bag that was suitable for globetrotting women. The prototype – a roomy rectangular leather holdall – went on to become one of the most in-demand accessories in the world.
Also on display are Mulberry handbags worn by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, including the era-defining satchel-style Alexa – named after the British style icon – which was the must-have accessory for the effortlessly cool when it was first introduced in 2009.
“Bags are both a private possession and a public statement: throughout history and across cultures they have occupied a very special space that is both on display and very discreet,” says Savi.
“I would like visitors to be surprised by the incredible richness of the design and materials used to make bags throughout history and to discover how men as well as women have been using bags of different types, and how their purpose has driven their design and shape.”
Savi has divided the exhibition, which is sponsored by Mulberry, into three themes. Visitors are first invited to explore Function, which looks at the bag from its purely practical perspective, an object designed to hold everything from our everyday necessities to more treasured belongings.
Here you’ll find Winston Churchill’s red despatch box, used when he was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1920s, sitting alongside, amongst other things, Vivien Leigh’s attaché case and a dowry bag (bhujki), an intricate creation of silk, sequins, gold thread, beads and mirrors, used in Pakistan in the mid-20th century.
The exquisitely restored c.1900 Louis Vuitton ‘malle haute’ trunk is particularly eye-catching, custom-made for American socialite Emilie Grigsby, whose labels and markings reveal a hidden history of its travels on the world’s great ocean liners.
“Travel lies at the heart of some of today’s global fashion brands – such as Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada – all of which began as producers of luxury travel goods. Many of the bags these companies make today continue to reference travel heritage in their design,” says Savi.
It’s fascinating, but so too is the next part of the show – Status and Identity – which explores the role of the bag in celebrity culture, with instantly recognisable pieces on display including the Hermès Kelly, named after American actress and Monégasque princess Grace Kelly, and the boxy, quilted ‘Lady Dior’, a favourite of Princess Diana.
This section also delves into the ‘It bag’ phenomenon from the late 1990s, when celebrity association helped drive luxury bag sales. Cue Carrie and the famous Fendi ‘Baguette’; though already a hit when it was launched in 1997 by Silvia Venturini Fendi, SATC’s costume designer Patrica Field cemented its popularity and, to date, more than a million have been sold.
Another interesting aspect is how luxury handbags were a symbol of power, the obvious example being Margaret Thatcher, whose Asprey numbers were often cited as her secret weapon.
But while celebrities used bags to their own advantage, so too did designers who, realising they could be a blank canvas, sent bags down the runway adorned with slogans, personal statements and political messages. Interestingly not a new idea (one of the objects on display is an anti-slavery reticule bag from 1825), it was Anya Hindmarch’s forward-thinking ‘I am NOT a plastic bag’ tote which spearheaded the phenomenon.
The show’s third and final section looks at design, lifting the lid on the ingenuity employed by leading fashion houses. “I’d like visitors to focus on the complex process of bag-making, the techniques and materials. From creative sketches to precise technical drawings, from prototype to catwalk, every stage requires careful thought,” continues Savi.
“Originally hand-stitched at home or crafted in small workshops, today’s mass-produced bags are assembled in factories. Each procedure requires special skills, from pattern-making, cutting and dyeing, to sewing, polishing and finishing.”
A highlight is the celebration of experimental design and the humour that can be evoked from accessories, from a frog-shaped 17th-century purse through to a Chanel bag transformed into a milk carton; also, how the humble bag has been the subject of many an art-meets-fashion collaboration – the Prada nylon bag reinvented by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, for example, and the ‘International Woman’ suitcase by Tracey Emin for Longchamp.
And then finally we are encouraged to look to the future and the designers leading the charge to create bags using innovative and sustainable materials, including a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste and a bag crafted from decommissioned fire hoses by Elvis and Kresse.
“With this exhibition I wanted to highlight how bags are complex accessories that marry together function and symbolism, inside and outside, private and public,” concludes Savi. “Their allure is multi-layered: they carry many different objects and are functional objects, but they also carry many different meanings, from one place to another, and can project to the world who we are.”
Whether the boldest of fashion statements or used to house our most treasured belongings, one thing is for certain, this show will be your bag.
‘Bags: Inside Out’ is at the V&A from
21 November 2020 until 12 September 2021.