From a renaissance falconer’s bag to Haute Couture purses, the V&A’s current show, Bags: Inside Out, explores the history of this much needed and, at times, coveted accessory, writes Julia Bagguley.
‘A bag, if you think about it – and I do, a lot – has a life of its own. It just is, whereas clothing is nothing without a body inside.’ Tom Ford, US Vogue, February 1998
An exhibition of beauty and skills
The problem is ‘paraphernalia’ – how to carry it and what to conceal it in. What is most precious to us? What do bags tell us about our personalities and professional lives, the secrets we keep and how we keep them close. A bag is an accessory so necessary we use it to protect and project ourselves into the outside world without giving too much away.
This is the subject of an exquisite exhibition Bags: Inside Out now to be seen until January 2022 at the V&A. The V&A collection contains around 2,000 bags in many different forms. The exhibition curator, Lucia Salvi, must have faced a huge challenge when it came to choosing the 270+ exhibits, spanning 500 years, for this small but exquisite display. Having been personally involved in curating and assisting with displays I can only sympathise with the difficulty of whittling down her many choices. Wisely, she has not gone for a thematic display but has compartmentalised her subject into three groups – ‘Status and Identity’, ‘Function and Utility’ and ‘Design and Making’ – all of which, in their different ways, address our attitude to carrying our personal paraphernalia.
Function and Utility
The first section of the exhibition will have costume historians enraptured. Bags are examined in their historical context and how they evolved as practical objects designed to protect their contents. Favourite exhibits include a large embroidered purse used to protect Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England and an C18th falconer’s bag with a hood, a bell, a jess and a vervel, a lure, a whistle, bait and a knife, accoutrements required for a long day’s hunting. Utilitarian it may be but it is also exquisitely made from green silk and embroidered inside and out.
There is also a Louis Vuitton travelling trunk used during the glamour of the ocean liners from the early 1900s and a 1910 French Lemière opera bag with its contents; the cream coloured silk exterior foldable box bag comes with fitted optical glasses, pen and paper, a vanity mirror and matching fan, and an elegant writing case belonging to the actress Vivien Leigh.
Status and Identity
The handbags we covet speak volumes of who we aspire to be. They have always been symbols of status and identity with brands prominent as design features. They are the main streams of revenue for haute couture brands and the houses have used celebrities as effective assets for certain designs – Grace Kelly for the Hermès ‘Kelly’, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the Gucci ‘Jackie’ and Diana Princess of Wales for the ‘Lady Dior’.
Two others are immediately recognisable. The Hermès ‘Birkin’ for the Anglo French chanteuse Jane Birkin is, at least to me, SO desirable and its price reflects its popularity – the actor Ashton Kutcher commented ‘I learned what a Birkin bag is from the price tag. You’ll never forget what it is once you’ve paid for one.’
The quilted and gilt Chanel 2.55 bag is a timeless symbol of elegance. Designed by Coco Chanel in 1929, it was reworked by the designer on her return to couture in 1955. It was thought to have been further reimagined by Karl Lagerfeld when he took over Maison Chanel in the 1980s. However, the obituaries following the recent death of the designer and accessories stylist, Frances Stein, have revealed that she was responsible for the redesign; it was she who incorporated the familiar chain straps and the interleaved ‘couture’ font CC monogram.
These two bags reflect the personal projection that designer bags had – and continue to have. Chanel’s small bag expresses sureness, needing nothing but keys and a credit card. The Birkin suggests expertise and authority – at the very least pointing to conviction and authority.
Design and Making
On an upper mezzanine, the exhibition turns into a workshop. Mulberry (sponsors of the exhibition) display the process – from sketch to sample – where a new bag is broken down into its many constituent parts. The templates – not just patterns but zips, chains, locks, handles, clasps, buckles, together with the craftsmen’s tools, including a stitching horse, bone folder, thread snips, hand skiver: all are necessary to bring the finished article together. For those interested in design and the working bench skills required to bring these ideas to reality this will be absorbing.
Also on display are the C19th stock books from Cartier Paris and paper patterns for the Italian brand Valextra, popular in the Fifties. The exhibition finishes with designers experimenting with innovative and environmentally sustainable materials. There is a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste and a bag crafted from decommissioned fire hoses by Elvis and Kresse.
The Dark Side
It is easy to appreciate the beauty of design and the skills involved in the creation of these objects – each so very beautiful in their own right. It is also appropriate to appreciate that high values are the focus of the exhibition. Nevertheless, in preparing this review two sharp realities emerged which are both thought-provoking and shocking, and cannot be ignored when considering the history and making of this important accessory.
The Prato Problem
In Tuscany, 11 miles north-west of Florence, is the medieval city of Prato. Famed for its ancient university, palazzi and, in the Duomo, frescos by the renaissance master, Filippino Lippi, there is another side to its obvious attractions. East Asian immigrants started to settle in Prato in the early 1990s, so that now the city has a large Chinese population – and not just the estimated legal 9,927 inhabitants but around 45,000 illegal workers. Most come from the city of Wenzhou in the Chinese province of Zhejian, but latterly from Syria, Senegal and North and East Africa.
The Chinese own and work in 3,500 workshops in the textile and leather industry, dominating the local economy. The trick is to import cheap raw materials, mainly from China, and assemble them into goods stamped with the important ‘Made in Italy’ logo. They are then sold back into the Far East or materialise on those stalls in the Florentine markets where you buy your imitation designer handbags, belts and gloves.
This is not the place to investigate the Italian local authorities who have found themselves powerless to intervene and intercept this closed market but to speculate on those trapped in these closed shops, working endless hours for little recompense (The plight of the authorities and the Chinese immigrants themselves has been extensively investigated in The New Yorker by D. T. Max ‘The Chinese Workers Who Assemble Designer Bags in Tuscany,’ on 9 April 2018).
There is, however, a twist in the tale. COVID-19 has badly affected the local and immigrant community in Prato. The pandemic was a tipping point for the Chinese, intensifying doubts over their future in Italy, Europe’s most sluggish economy. First they suffered racist discrimination, accused of being spreaders of the disease. Then, as the community emerged almost unscathed amid Italy’s growing death toll, they were held up as a model of how to fight it.
Since the Spring of 2020, when the virus began to spread across Northern Italy, it is estimated that 10% of the Chinese community have left. Worn down by the COVID-induced recession, they have been lured back to China by its greater success in combating the pandemic and brighter economic prospects.
The Suitcase as Monument: Remembering the Holocaust
Although this is not referred to in the exhibition, this photograph, which was recently posted on Instagram, gave me a jolt. The suitcase would seem to be a practical and innocuous accessory – packed with the necessities of life in anticipation of a journey with locks to keep belongings safe. Here, however, it is something altogether ominous and tragic. This is a photograph of a wall of suitcases of victims of the Holocaust. It is part of an exhibition in the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland.
Here is a monument to the crimes of humanity. Each suitcase represents a grandparent, a parent, a child, a sibling – families destroyed for being what they represent. It was a one way journey to Auschwitz. There was no return ticket.
Within the exhibition’s limited parameters its groups are constants in all our lives; not a day goes by when we don’t use our necessary accessory for practical and personal reasons.
Bags: Inside Out makes no attempt to address the wider spectrum of contemporary debate. It does not dig deeply into gender, racism, the plight of migrants or refugees, pandemics, beliefs, climate change and levelling up, to name but a few of the many social concerns that whirl around the internet and into our consciousness. With the few examples I have highlighted – modern day slavery and the realities of the Holocaust – I have barely begun to cover how this one accessory captures the human cost of fashion as well as the needs and lives of all who own a bag. We take for granted how small items can be the subject of past and present human abuses, abuses that continue to outrage us. However, it would be unfair and unkind to condemn the V&A’s exhibition as unashamedly indulgent. Admiration for design ingenuity, craftsmanship and appreciation of skills should not be dismissed and discounted. Though the show does not tell the whole story of our bags, purses, suitcases and rucksacks, it certainly makes us think about the relevance of them to our lives and the lives of those around us.
Bags: Inside Out is showing at the V&A, London, until 16 January. Click here for more information or to book tickets.