The forgotten history of an iconic accessor

I’ve spent hours marveling on the secret love letter pocket in Chanel’s iconic flap bag and the eccentric tiger head on the clasp of Gucci’s Dionysus bag—and spent more cash than I care to confess on the purses in my closet. I’m barely embarrassed about my fixation with these objects, which finally quantity to receptacles for keys and lip balm. That’s why I used to be so intrigued by an exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that explores the history of people’ obsession with luggage.

[Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Baggage: Inside Out options purses going again to the sixteenth century, from touring trunks to carriers for wartime fuel masks to the first-ever Hermès Birkin. It’s eye sweet for bag lovers similar to me, however it additionally tells the story of how folks have ventured additional and farther from their houses over the centuries, requiring containers to carry their belongings. Crucially, it explores how these useful objects have come to hold deeper symbolic that means.

Baggage are transportable artwork

For 1000’s of years, luggage had been purely sensible objects. Our earliest ancestors wanted to hold instruments as they hunted and gathered, in order that they usual luggage from animal skins and plant fibers. Egyptian hieroglyphs painting males with luggage slung throughout their waists, and the Bible is full of descriptions of pouches.


It was solely within the Center Ages that luggage morphed right into a kind of self-expression. Out of the blue, luggage had been transportable canvases that featured the bagmaker’s craftsmanship and artistry. Within the 14th century, it grew to become extra frequent for folks to hold ornately embroidered drawstring pouches; grooms gave their brides luggage that depicted love tales as wedding ceremony items. “What makes them so highly effective as symbols is that they’re so seen on the physique,” says Lucia Savi, who curated this exhibit. “We stock them on the criminal of our elbow or in our arms or on the waist. They instantly inform us who we’re, and who we aspire to be.”

Frog Purse. [Photo: © Ashmolean Museum/University of Oxford/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Maybe my favourite bag within the exhibit is one from the 1600s within the form of a frog; it’s made out of silk, steel threads, and different supplies. It’s half of a broader assortment of luggage from this period within the form of grapes, nuts, and small animals. Historians imagine rich folks could have used them to hold scented herbs, dried flowers, or sweet-smelling powders that could possibly be sniffed at any time when they wanted respite from a world that was far smellier and fewer hygienic than our personal.

Burse for the Nice Seal of England, 1558-1603, England. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

After all, these ornate luggage had been costly, so additionally they conveyed the proprietor’s social standing and id. Within the exhibit, essentially the most dramatic model is a bag from 1558 made of silk, silver threads, sequins, and glass beads. It held Queen Elizabeth I’s seal and was most likely carried by the queen’s adviser, Sir Christopher Hatton, to sign his function within the courtroom. “It was a sensible object to guard the Nice Seal of England,” says Savi. “However in miniature portraits we see Hatton prominently displaying the bag as an emblem of his energy.”

Inrō with netsuke and ojime, c.1750-1850, Japan. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

The exhibit goes past the West. There’s an interesting cylindrical bag from Japan, made of carved wooden and bone, that includes little photographs of horses and landscapes. It was invented within the 1600s and was initially worn by males to hold issues similar to seals and ink pads. The one on show options small containers stacked on high of one another, which held drugs, together with an aphrodisiac and one thing to calm the liver.

An indication of girls’s liberation

Baggage reveal folks’s social standing in some ways, together with how a lot freedom they’ve to maneuver in society. Many of the earliest luggage within the exhibit had been carried by rich and essential males, who had been way more more likely to enterprise away from dwelling and really owned useful issues price carrying. Girls had been extra tied to the house. “We don’t want a bag after we’re inside our houses; we’d like them after we’re shifting from one place to a different,” says Savi. “So the history of luggage reveals what women and men might and couldn’t do.”

Chatelaine, 1863-85, most likely England. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

One other one of my favourite items was made in England in 1863. It’s known as a Chatelaine, which is a metal brooch designed to hold from a lady’s waist and to droop objects she may want. This one entails 13 hanging equipment, similar to scissors, a thimble, a tiny pocket book, and a magnifying glass, each lovely and ornately crafted. It’s a stupendous, costly work of artwork, however it additionally illustrates that even rich girls’s worlds had been comparatively small.

Within the twentieth century, designers started creating bigger luggage as girls had been more and more in a position to step out into society. Decrease-class girls began working in factories and wanted luggage to hold their issues. Finally, wealthier girls bought higher-end variations of these luggage. The trendy universe of luxurious purses is the logical extension of this development. “Baggage change into greater and sturdier,” Savi says. “They’re designed to be useful and sensible, however they’re additionally invested with that means.”


Jane Birkin’s Birkin, 1984. [Photo: Les 3 marches de Catherine B/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Some of essentially the most iconic luggage of our time are designed to permit well-heeled trendy girls to go about their busy lives. Take the Hermès Birkin bag, which has a big, structured silhouette. It was created in 1984 after then-CEO Jean-Louis Dumas sat subsequent to the English singer Jane Birkin on a flight, and she or he complained that she was unable to discover a leather-based bag with sufficient pockets. Whereas the Birkin is now legendary and might fetch tens of 1000’s of {dollars} on the secondhand market, it’s additionally very useful, geared up with pockets and shoulder straps so it may be worn in some ways.

Jane Birkin’s Birkin, 1984. [Photo: Les 3 marches de Catherine B/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

The trendy world

Given this history, it’s fascinating to contemplate how luggage match into the fashionable world. Purses proceed to be a standing image and drive the luxury fashion industry. Whereas many customers can’t afford to purchase an complete outfit from a high-end designer, they may be capable of personal a bit of the model with a purse.

Anya Hindmarch and We Are What We Do, ‘I’m NOT a Plastic bag’ tote bag, 2007, London. [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

In addition they proceed to be a kind of self-expression, generally actually. In 2007, Anya Hindmarch created a tote scrawled with the phrases “I’m NOT a plastic bag” to protest plastic air pollution, whereas in 2019, Michele Pred created a leather bag emblazoned with “My Physique My Enterprise.” (These luggage take a web page from Nineteenth-century luggage inscribed with textual content selling abolition.) However self-expression doesn’t at all times should be costly. The New Yorker tote, which comes free with {a magazine} subscription, has change into common amongst followers of the publication as a result of it additionally expresses different points of their id, maybe their left-leaning politics or love of long-form journalism.

Michele Pred, ‘My Physique My Enterprise’ purse, 2019. [Photo: Nancy Hoffman/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

In an fascinating twist, trendy know-how means we don’t want many objects after we depart the home: Our cell telephones have made paper portfolios and bigger gadgets more and more pointless. The pandemic could properly change our relationship with luggage even additional. Very like girls within the 18th century, we’re largely homebound and don’t must tote round numerous issues for a protracted day on the workplace. This can doubtless stay true for the foreseeable future. And but even in the course of the pandemic, spending knowledge exhibits that customers are persevering with to purchase luggage of all sizes, whether or not they fill them up or not. “At first of the pandemic, I predicted that purses would change into a factor of the previous, however I used to be confirmed fairly mistaken,” Savi says. “Folks caught at dwelling are nonetheless fascinated with the day they [will] exit once more. Shopping for a bag was in some methods an indication of hope.”

And as somebody who has acquired a big crimson tote bag within the midst of a lockdown, I can attest that I purchased it as a result of it was lovely, luxurious, and made me pleased. This exhibit exhibits that whereas the intuition is perhaps frivolous and indulgent, it is usually deeply human.