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Victoria and Albert Museum reopens with ‘Bags: Inside Out’ exhibition

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is hosting its first exhibition since the Covid-19 pandemic with an exhibition dedicated to what it calls the “ultimate accessory” bags.

Originally scheduled for April this year, the exhibition explores the publics longstanding fascination with the bag, featuring designer handbags, despatch boxes, vanity cases and military rucksacks, including Mulberry, Karl Lagerfeld, Hermès, Off-White, Dior, Chanel, Fendi, Versace, and Stella McCartney.

The museum has more than 2,000 examples of bags across all departments, many of which have rarely been on display, and director Dr Tristram Hunt, said in the opening speech at the virtual press preview that it was “surprising” that this was the first exhibition they had devoted to the bag, “the most coveted of accessories”.

Bags: Inside Out, builds on the V&A’s previous exhibitions dedicated to fashion accessories, and aims to reveal the “extraordinary and versatile range of the V&A’s global collection alongside incredible loans from collections,” added Hunt. “Bags: Inside Out is an unprecedented look at our global obsession and enduring relationship with this ultimate accessory.”

The thematic exhibition explores the function, the status, the craftsmanship and worldwide heritage of bags through the lens of almost 300 objects varying in scale from tiny purses held on a fingertip to luxurious travel trunks, from the 16th century to today, from all around the world from Elizabethan England to contemporary China.

Highlights include the first-ever Hermès Birkin bag, a handbag that belonged to Margaret Thatcher, the Fendi baguette from ‘Sex and the City’ and the Mulberry ‘Alexa’ on loan from Alexa Chung that played a key role in the revival of the ‘It Bag’ and quickly became one of the most sought-after bags of a generation.

Bags: Inside Out the new V&A exhibition opens on December 12 in London

Dr Lucia Silva, who curated the exhibition and has worked on the project for more than two years, said in the virtual press preview: “Bags are often understudied, despite their variety and complexity, and when we hear the word bags, we almost immediately and exclusively associate them with women and we tend to focus especially on handbags.

“In this exhibition we wanted to go beyond some of the assumptions connected to bags and explores the function, symbolic meanings, design and making in the many incarnations, from handbags, briefcases, backpacks, vanity cases, luggage, wallets and even military bags.”

The exhibition is set over two levels, a “more intimate display” on the ground floor, where the exhibition designers showcase the space as a succession of rooms that aims to remind visitors of pockets inside bags, while the upper mezzanine level is a “more open and public space”.

“I believe what makes bags such fascinating objects is their dual nature, they can be very personalised in hiding away our most personal belongings but at the same time they are very visible in the public sphere, highlighting who we are and who we aspire to be,” added Silva. “Private vs public, inside vs outside, function vs status, are the core themes of the exhibition and its design.”

The exhibition is divided into three sections, status and identity, function and utility, design and making.

The opening section, function and utility feature one of the earliest objects on displays - the Burse for the Great Seal of England. This densely embroidered burse protected the silver matrix of Elizabeth I. Matrices were used to make wax seal impressions that were applied to decrees, charters and royal proclamations. While also functional, it was also a symbol of great status to the wearer, and the bag was possibly used by Sir Christopher Hatton (1540–1591), one of Elizabeth I’s Keepers of the Great Seal and Lord Chancellor between 1587 and 1591.

Other key objects in the functioning and utility section, examining bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings, includes Winston Churchill’s red despatch box from the 1920s, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the Second World War, and Vivien Leigh’s attaché case. There is also a striking Louis Vuitton trunk from the early 1900s, which once belonged to the American socialite Emilie Grigsby, that showcases how modes of transport throughout history have influenced the changing shape of luggage.

Moving through to the second section, entitled status and identity, the exhibition looks at the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite. This area features the first-ever made Hermès Birkin bag owned by actress and singer Jane Birkin, a bag that became one of the most sought-after and celebrated handbags of the 20th and 21st century.

Other key items include a Hermès ‘Kelly’ named in honour of Grace Kelly, a ‘Lady Dior’ handbag named after Princess Diana and the Fendi ‘Baguette’ bag worn by and stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in one of Sex and the City’s most famous scenes sits alongside a gold Louis Vuitton Monogram Miroir ‘Speedy’ bag by Marc Jacobs popularised by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

Exhibition sponsor Mulberry also has a number of its designs on display in this section including its timeless and covetable ‘Bayswater’ and ‘Alexa’ bags.

V&A displays first-ever Birkin bag in a new exhibition dedicated to the “ultimate accessory” bags

The final section looks at the design and making process, where the designers get their inspiration, from sketch to sample, sewing to selling, and even includes a ‘makers’ table’ to allow visitors to get up close and personal with bag making processes and materials alongside newly commissioned interviews with designers and makers.

The exhibition also examines the experimental forms created by designers and the bag’s role as an object of whimsical subversion as well as an opportunity for artistic collaboration. This isn’t just a recent trend, as seen with the playful ‘Florist’s Basket’ by Lulu Guinness, Thom Browne’s handbag in the form of his dog Hector and a Chanel bag transformed into a milk carton, but it goes back centuries, as there is a 17th-century purse in the shape of a frog.

There is also a wearable art section that explores the collaborations between fashion designers, artists and architects, which has resulted in innovative and often limited-edition collections such as Prada’s nylon bag reinvented by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, Valextra’s collaboration with Bethan Laura Wood and the ‘International Woman’ suitcase by Tracey Emin for Longchamp.

A look to the future finishes the exhibition with designers experimenting with innovative and environmentally 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.

Bags: Inside Out at the V&A opens on December 12.

Images: courtesy of the V&A