Without them, the modern fashion industry would not exist. Looking back at the history of bags to figure out how they became status symbols and emblems of identity
A timeless accessory
In addition to its seasonality and changeability, fashion has as its charm and strength the ability to go beyond the contingent. It resume its role as a witness to the evolution of the times: good, bad, revolutionary, or reactionary that they are. Fashion is a litmus test.
There is one accessory that, above all others, is essential in the routine of life of women and men. A perfect thermometer of their time: the bag.
One can attempt to understand the success behind the handbag as an accessory by examining its function, tracing its history, and understanding its role in terms of the status quo. First of all, handbags serve as valuable items used to store personal effects.
Bags: Inside Out
It is an element of identity as well. Look at the role it has played among celebrities: examples include the Monogram Miroir Speedy bag by Marc Jacobs.The bag as a blank canvas to spread slogans, statements, and political messages, with the canvas I am Not a Plastic Bag by Anya Hindmarch. Other examples include the My Body My Business bag by artist-activist Michele Pred, the Fendi baguette sported by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex & the City, and the Lait by Chanel designed by Karl Lagerfeld.
Delineating the history of the bag and its numerous declinations, offering ideas and points of view on the history of one of the most symbolic objects in the history of humankind, was the recently concluded exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, entitled the Bags: Inside Out exhibition, sponsored by Mulberry.
The collection of approximately 300 bags, curated by Lucia Savi, developed into an exhibition in three sections. Style, function and their cultural significance. It took two and a half years to create the presentation. Lucia Savi, curator of the exhibition, focused on storytelling, which is to explore objects above their function and aesthetics.
The many faces of a cult-item
At the beginning, Savi noticed the limited research around the topic of bags compared other fashion items. That is from where the concept, to focus on bags for this upcoming event, developed.
«The idea was to look at their function, their symbolic meaning, and the making of designs throughout history. It’s a semantic exhibition; taking bags from Elizabethan England to contemporary China», says Savi by emphasizing the different geography and chronology between the objects. The Great Seal of Elizabeth I, a bag owned by Queen Mary during World War II. Winston Churchill’s red shipping box, was one of the rarest pieces in the collection.
It’s never about one object
Even though there is no single item to highlight, Savi believes that one of the most challenging objectives of the curator is to make the right selection in balancing all the objects.
The first thing she did while researching was to discover around 2000 bags in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum and work on new acquisitions, loans, and dialogues with private museums to arrange the project
«With the exhibition, it’s never about one object», says Savi, while explaining the name of the event – Bags: Inside Out. She could have chosen ‘handbags’ for the title but settled for ‘bags’ to show a variety of objects from dispatch boxes to briefcases, from backpacks to handbags.
By including several geographies, she also wanted to make the narrative universal by showing how men and women carry these accessories. «We focus on the little dog bags that are carried by men, and pouches worn in traditional Chinese dress. I wanted to focus on history and different cultures and different techniques. To deeply understand why they are regarded as symbolic».
The intended narrative that Lucia Savi transmitted through her project is about the bags having dual nature. It is the private versus public or inside versus the outside. The private aspect of the accessory is carrying personal belongings inside; the public makes these bags visible for the society as people hold them in hands or roll over the shoulder.
The material and status of the bag might reveal who we are and what we aspire to be, defines Savi; that is why some of the bags appear open. The aim was to show both the design, status, and function of the accessory. Some objects disclose their prolonged use. An example is the first-ever Birkin bag owned by Jane Birkin with signs of worn product. Another interpreting method is to consider the making of the design as the inside structure of the bag.
The trunk bag
In the BBC documentary, the museum has shared the story of the trunk bag that was carrying a meaningful value both for the exhibition and for Lucia Savi as she wanted to include it to connect the history of travel with bags.
Brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci started with travel goods, in particular, trunk bags. She has emphasized its effect through identifying means of transportation used to carry those accessories, ocean liners, where it was necessary to take around twenty trunks in first class for the sake of changing outfits in two weeks of travel.
At the beginning of the research, Savi didn’t realize that the museum collection had one trunk, and it was a worn Louis Vuitton trunk. It is covered with labels, and stickers, applied during travels between America and England. These, belonged to the wealthy American socialist Emilie Grigsby. Who moved to England at the beginning of the 20th century.
The trunk was met under analysis to reveal the modes of transportation it underwent. In addition to transatlantic travel, there is a sticker from the 1960s showing an airplane trip to Japan of fourteen pieces of luggage. This type of analysis and detailing was thought out along with bags that come from numerous backgrounds.
Function and utility, status and identity, design and making
There were three sections to the exhibition. The first section – Function and Utility – looking at the relationship between the valuable content and the outside of the bag. Examples are travel bags and military rucksacks. This fraction brought Vivien Leigh’s attaché case along with other rare and renowned pieces.
The second section – Status and Identity, included historical and contemporary objects connected to the celebrities. It-bags and bags from other cultures – from Africa to China to Central America – represented status through symbols and decorations. For example, the Fendi Baguette bag was worn by Sara Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.
This section presents bags with words that express what the owner believes. ‘I am not a plastic bag’ by Anya Hindmarch was a result of collaboration with a social movement organization. We Are What We Do organization worked on raising awareness around the issue of plastic, pollution, and reusable materials.
Stella McCartney’s work, made of ocean plastic, appeared in the ‘carrying a message’ section. Lucia Savi mentioned a workshop she participated in, organized by Elvis & Kresse that re-engineers waste materials and uses decommissioned London’s fire hoses as a raw material; the bag was present in the exhibition.
The trinity closed with a section called Design and Making to present the collaborations between artists, designers, and architects.
This part explored different forms and patterns of the bags. Examples are the chainmail bag by Paco Rabanne, Thom Brown’s handbag in his dog’s shape, and the milk carton Chanel bag.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Since 2005, sustainability has been a strategic priority for the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the past three years, they have been designing an updated sustainability policy for the museum. The objective was to implement strategies that would reduce energy consumption, carbon emission, and increase green efficiencies. The museum is a member of the South Kensington 1851 Carbon Reduction Masterplan.
Victoria and Albert Museum
London SW7 2RL
Sponsored by Mulberry, the exhibition closed on September 12th, 2021