Bags: Inside Out
Victoria and Albert Museum
Until 19 January 2022
The functional use of bags has a symbolic significance that is thoroughly explored in this V&A exhibition. The ‘inside out’ perspective is perceived from different angles that reveal the personal and the public sides of handbags as well as their fascinating and desirable aspects. Bags are practical objects; they can be dispensable, durable, precious objects of art, political statements, and emblems of identity and of desire. They adapt and respond to their purpose and to the time in which they were created and are chosen according to their practicality and design. The three hundred objects on display reveal the wide and eclectic variety of bags and handbags that have been used for five hundred years and illustrate their versatility. Similarly to other accessories, bags complete an outfit and, at the same time, are useful in everyday life. They contain our belongings, which can be just a purse and a smartphone but can also be more intimate objects such as make-up, tissues, pills, sanitary pads and keys. An intriguing example of this dual use of bags is the Chateleine bag that is displayed at the beginning of the exhibition; it is suspended from the waist and has thirteen pouches as well as items such as a notebook, and tools such as a thimble and a magnifying glass. The functionality of the different objects we can see hanging down contrasts with the secret that may be hidden inside the bag.
Bags are usually linked to women. However, the exhibition displays Churchill’s dispatch box, which was used to contain and carry important documents. Gender-neutral items are on display as well, such as satchels, a 1940s handbag used to carry a gas mask, a trunk used by people travelling by sea, and backpacks too. Needless to say, most of the bags in the exhibition are considered feminine items; they highlight status, fashion choices and taste awareness. The inside perspective is investigated on the upper floor, where video clips explain how a bag is made, from the first idea and the handmade design to the final actual production. Tools and hardware, such as zips, chains, locks, clasps and buckles, are exhibited with samples of leather and synthetic materials. It is difficult to understand how some of the most precious and complex bags were made, but the viewer will be able to understand the main processes and techniques used to manufacture a bag.
The most interesting feature of the exhibition is how both iconic bags and ordinary ones have a useful and symbolic meaning and attract clients at all income levels. They can be unique expensive items associated with celebrities, such as the ‘Hermès Kelly’, named after Grace Kelly, the ‘Lady Dior’, named in honour of Princess Diana, or the Fendi ‘baguette’ worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, or just ordinary containers, maybe made of recycled sustainable material, such as Stella McCartney’s creations. Their apparent ordinariness therefore goes together with their uniqueness and playfulness that attract the buyer’s or viewer’s attention and makes them desirable, suitable and meaningful. Good examples of this trend are the Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel ‘Lait de Coco’ evening bag (2014), which is shaped like a milk carton, and the famous ‘Birkin’ bag created by Jane Birkin that has traces of the stickers on it that she originally placed on the front and also features the burse for the great seal of England embroidered in gold (which dates back to 1585).
There are bags inspired by fairy tales, artworks and the natural world; some are decorated with beads and jewels or are painted. Others have printed mottos on them or political statements such as ‘My body My business’ and ‘I shop therefore I am’, just like many tote bags today. Bags are companions we carry with us every time we go out. Losing a bag can be a big problem, because we might also lose our essential belongings such as credit cards, money, car and house keys, ID and mobile phones. The outside of a bag speaks of what we would like to be, and the inside indicates who we are and what we do. The exhibition displays the magic and inventive world of bag design and leaves to the imagination our inner self and desires.
Carla Scarano © 2021.