New V&A Exhibtion ‘Bags: Inside & Out’ Reminds That We Are What We Carry

When we recently visited Amsterdam’s Museum of Bags & Purses, even we were taken a bit by surprise at the extent of the cultural influence of handbags, especially throughout the more recent history. In many ways, you are what you carry.

But there are few we would trust more to effectively articulate this than London’s always illuminating V&A, which this months opens the pithily titled new exhibition Bags: Inside & Out. Described by the museum itself as covering “designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases to military rucksacks,” it’s an attempt to elucidate just what our bags mean to us as a society, and what signals we are sending by carrying them.

The presentation is sponsored by UK luxury goods maker Mulberry, and as CEO Thierry Andretta insightfully observes, “Bags can be functional and beautiful, public and private. They carry cultural and personal meaning as well as our belongings, and they are iconic pieces of design, worth celebrating in their own right.”

It’s divided into three distinct sections: Function, which considers bags as practical objects; Status and Identity, examining their relationship with celebrity culture; and finally Design and Making, giving a peek into the start-to-finish process of how they’re actually made. The latter is laid out as a “maker’s table,” with samples, sketches, and prototypes culled from major fashion houses, and exploring the essence of craftsmanship from the 17th Century on through to the present.

Weighty historical highlights include the burse used to protect Elizabeth 1’s Great Seal of England, an attaché owned by actress Vivien Leigh, and an early 20th Century Louis Vuitton trunk, which American socialite Emilie Grigsby once called her own.

But surely bags as a signifier of fame is what holds the greatest fascination. And on display are a Lady Dior, named in honor of Princess Diana, and the exalted Kelly, created by Hermes as a worthy tribute to Hollywood / European royal Grace Kelly.

Other goodies are the 2019 Thom Browne Hector, made in the shape of his dachshund; a ‘Frog’ purse from the 1600s; a glammy Fendi Baguette, as worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex & the City; and a pair of distinctly feminist statements: Tracey Emin‘s 2004 International Woman suitcase for Longchamp, and artist/activist Michele Pred’s provocative My Body My Business bag.

The show’s curator, Dr Lucia Savi, sums it up thusly: “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. By exploring their continuing importance in our lives and as part of the history of design the exhibition highlights the V&A’s mission to illuminate the past and inspire designers of the future.”

So yes, next time you are choosing a new bag, please do consider the greater implications of your decision.

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