This new, extravagant show shows that a handbag can be more than just a place for a phone, lippy, and Polo mints. In the past I have criticised the V&A’s fashion shows. They have a tendency make people feel like they are in a shop, even though it is a large and expensive one. This deadening effect may be due to big-label sponsors. But it seems that the months of lockdown have taken their toll not only on its latest exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, which has finally opened, having been delayed twice by the pandemic, but on me, too. My hands tingling from covetousness as I walked through the store’s seductive displays, I enjoyed the feeling that I had unaccountably found the best accessory shop in the world. My notebook was full of names and I began to list them in my notebook. This became a dangerous game for me that I considered asking Dr Lucia Savi, the curator of the exhibition, for a price list.
Bags is interested in poetry and social history. The psychology of the handbag is not explored by Bags. It seems reluctant to venture into the dark and powerful female spaces where it is possible to find three fuzzy Polo mints. A paper hanky, an Elastoplast, and an emergency tube of Max Factor. It makes up for what it lacks by joy.
It is impossible to not be impressed by Emily Jo Gibbs’s Horse Chestnut Bag with Conker Purse made from silk and copper wire in 1996. Vivien Lee’s 1950s Asprey attache bag with matching paper holder is a great example of how it could be. Jane Birkin’s 1984 Hermes “Birkin” is something I stare at fervently. It was made for me by Jane Birkin. You can still see the adhesive traces. Every cabinet has the beautiful and the playful. Handbags should seamlessly combine form with function as good design should. However, they shouldn’t be above whimsy and humour, as Chanel’s 2014 Lait de Coco evening bag, which takes inspiration from a milk carton.
Savi’s approach is broadly thematic. Sections downstairs focus on travel, status and so-called “It Bags”, such as the sequined Fendi Baguette Carrrie bags in Sex and the City. Upstairs, craft and construction are the main focus. Savi does make good use of V&A’s historic collections at the beginning of the show. These are the forerunners to the modern handbag: A tie-on pocket dating from the 1740s. It would have been kept safe under the owner’s petticoat or hoops. A chatelaine, 1863-1885, that would have been worn around the waist and hang from there, thanks to several chains, small tools, and a series (this one has 13 accessories, including a thimble and a small notebook). It is amazing to see the symbolism in this. It is as powerful as any mangle about the responsibilities and burdens of women, and yet, it also works as an ornament, an exquisite triumph wrested form duty.
These triumphs are all around us as we move into the 20th Century: inner pockets, zips, buckles, and buttons that allow for freedom. A bag can be a symbol of power. And not just the power that comes with money. The small bag screams freedom. All I need is my keys and my credit card. The large bag speaks of command and competence (I can’t live without my laptop). The medium-sized Launer bags, beloved by Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II, are found in the middle. They can be worn as armour. I was happy to see a Mulberry film where Bill Amberg, a legendary leather craftsman, and Alice Gouldbourne (of Mulberry) talk about the skills involved in creating bags that last a lifetime. Although I agree with the fact that a good bag is a serious thing, a companion whose wrinkles will you come to know as intimately and as deeply as any lover, it can be difficult to consider outlay and investment when there are so many options.
My inquisitiveness grew and I set out on a second circuit. I desired more stars, more luxury frivolity. I wanted to find a bag that was both practical and stylish. This would be a way to show the world that I am not to be overlooked – and also to let them know that I have a bag with a lot of stories by Penelope Mortimer. The bag that I was most hungry for was not as large as the one Tracey Emin created for Longchamp 2004. It was an evening bag, called “La Manifestation” in 1945 (“the Demonstration”). The creation of Line Vautrin, the jeweller Vogue once called the poetess of metal, it has a finely sculpted bronze clasp of tiny human figures crowded together, some waving flags. This bag is beautiful and its creator has a perfectly right sense of the personal being political. Above all, though, I love it for the fact that, while on the delicate side, I’m pretty sure it’s still big enough to hold both my mobile and my headphones.