I’ve recently bemoaned my ability to visit two exhibitions of exquisite shoes. One in London at The Wallace Collection featuring the iconic shoes of Manolo Blahnik and more recently in Paris for those red-soled beauties from Christian Louboutin. Where there are shoes, there must be handbags and here they are!
The V&A museum in London has heeded my call and is staging an exhibition dedicated to what it calls the ultimate accessory featuring everything from designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases and military rucksacks.
Bags: Inside Out was scheduled to open this week and explore our enduring fascination with bags. It will feature Margaret Thatcher’s iconic Asprey handbag, Winston Churchill’s despatch box and a World War II gasmask bag with royal connections, alongside innovative designs from leading designers including Hermès.
The exhibition promises to share an exclusive look inside the world of the factory and atelier, from heritage to streetwear brands, while exploring the function, status and craftsmanship of bags which conceal and transport our most treasured belongings, through the examination of more than 300 objects varying in scale from tiny purses held on a fingertip to luxurious travel trunks.
Lucia Savi, the exhibition’s curator said:
From a lavish 16th century burse made for royalty to the everyday tote bag, this exhibition offers an understanding and insight into the function, status, design and making of bags across the world and throughout history. These portable, yet functional accessories have long fascinated men and women with their dual nature that combines private and public.
The first section of the exhibition examines bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings, featuring holiday outfits to confidential documents, make-up to money and even gas masks. Rare exhibits on show include a large embroidered burse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during WWII, Winston Churchill’s red despatch box and Vivien Leigh’s attaché case, as well as a striking and deeply desirable Louis Vuitton trunk from the early 1900s.
The exhibition then moves on to looking at the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite, and the rise of the It bag phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Highlights will include a Hermès Kelly named in honour of Grace Kelly and a Lady Dior handbag named after Princess Diana, a Fendi Baguette bag worn by and stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker in one of Sex and the City’s most famous scenes and a glittery gold Louis Vuitton Monogram Miroir Speedy bag by Marc Jacobs popularised by Kim Kardashian.
There is also be a focus on the use of bags as a blank canvas for slogans, personal statements and political messages and their role as a public platform to share beliefs and convictions through objects including an anti-slavery reticule bag from 1825, the I am Not a Plastic Bag tote by Anya Hindmarch and a My Body My Business handbag by artist and activist Michele Pred.
The final section of the show looks at the design and fabrication process from sketch to sample, sewing to selling. With material specialists stationed in different locations around the world and skills passed down within century-old fashion houses, this section aims to lift the lid on the ingenuity employed by leading brands.
Highlights include a maker’s table allowing visitors to get up close and personal with bag making processes and materials alongside newly commissioned interviews with designers and makers, as well as sketches, samples and prototypes from international fashion houses will show the innovative early stages of the design process.
There is also a nod to the future to conclude the exhibition, highlighting designers experimenting with innovative and environmentally sustainable materials including a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste.
Bags: Inside Out was scheduled to run from 25 April to 31 January, 2021 at the V&A in London.
The exhibition is the latest in the V&A’s series of fashion exhibitions and follows Mary Quant (2018-2019), Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (2018), Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion (2016 – 17), Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (2016 – 2017), Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2015 – 2016), Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2015) and Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s (2013 – 2014).
All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London