‘Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law — that is why I carry a big handbag,’ Margaret Thatcher once told an interviewer. That handbag was part of the Iron Lady’s suit of armour; a fashion accoutrement turned into a political prop.
But an accessory that became instantly recognisable on the outside held secrets on the inside. Thatcher referred to it as the only ‘leak-proof’ place in Downing Street, and it was a bag of tricks from which she might conjure pertinent quotes from Abraham Lincoln or Friedrich Hayek, or a crumpled brief from a mysterious source. Norman Tebbit said the art of being a successful cabinet minister ‘was to have worked out in advance how you shot down the advice that was in her handbag, and if you did it well enough the handbag was not opened’.
This curious relationship between the public and the private, between revealing and concealing, is the thread that runs through the V&A’s current exhibition. I managed to sneak in just before the latest lockdown. Bags: Inside Out includes Thatcher’s Nuovo Bidente bag among 300 objects from the 16th century to today that range from ornate chatelaines and the embroidered burse that protected Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England to military rucksacks and Winston Churchill’s red despatch box.
Curator Dr Lucia Savi explains that a fascination with bags is not a modern phenomenon — nor a gender-specific one. Long before Thatcher’s bag inspired its own legends (and got the verb ‘handbagging’ added to the dictionary), myths and folklore abounded about bags filled with dangerous or delightful powers, from Fortunatus’s purse to the bag of winds given to Ulysses by Aeolus. But bags also have the ability to reveal a great deal without being opened. Hermes carried a money-bag to signify his role as the Greek god of riches, trade and good fortune; celebrities carried the ‘It bags’ of the 1990s and 2000s to signify wealth and social status. This exhibition unpacks how these private possessions make such public statements.
The handbag as we know it originated in the sturdy, compartmentalised leather hand luggage carried by men, and it was only in the 1880s that bags with these characteristics became considered a women’s fashion accessory. Today the average British woman owns 14 handbags and spends more than £6,000 on them in her lifetime. Even during a year when most of those bags were gathering dust in the wardrobe, growth in demand for luxury bags led to a 12 per cent increase in revenue for the handbag division of LVMH, owner of brands including Louis Vuitton and Dior.
Luxury handbags now outperform even art as a financial investment, and the bag as wearable art is explored in the exhibition in everything from ‘reticules’ — 19th-century fabric handbags with a flat surface for decoration — to an insect-studded Prada ‘Entomology’ bag designed by Damien Hirst. There are also playful fashion creations, such as Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Lait de Coco’ bag in the shape of a milk carton and Thom Browne’s ‘Hector’ handbag, a lifesize replica of his dachshund with handles on its back. Savi says that handbags offer an opportunity for experimentation among designers because there are no rules: ‘We don’t have to fit any body part into a handbag, not like a hat, or shoes.’
The surfaces of bags have also long been a canvas for personal, political or religious statements. The New Yorker and Daunt Books canvas bags ubiquitous among London commuters are exhibited next to Anya Hindmarch’s 2007 ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ tote and a 19th-century Samuel Lines silk bag for the Female Society of Birmingham bearing an anti-slavery poem. Savi explains that these show how bags can project what we want others to see about us — whether it’s that we’re well read or campaigning for a better world. Bags don’t need to be expensive to carry social currency.
A good backstory, though, can make a bag very expensive indeed. The myths and legends carried by modern bags are often linked to celebrity culture: the first Hermès ‘Birkin’ is here, created in 1984 for singer Jane Birkin after she sat next to the brand’s chief executive on a flight and complained about being unable to find a leather bag that she liked. Vintage Birkins now sell for as much as $200,000. There is also the Christian Dior bag renamed ‘Lady Dior’ in honour of Princess Diana, a purple-sequinned Fendi ‘Baguette’ made famous by Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex and the City, and a Mulberry ‘Alexa’ on loan from Alexa Chung, who inspired the design.
Nearby is a 20th-century traditional beaded shoulder bag from Myanmar that signals membership of a certain tribe, in much the same way that carrying an Alexa might signal membership of the fashion pack, or a Birkin might signal wealth. All around the world, bags show what group you belong to — or would like to be part of.
Hours after my tour, the V&A was forced to close its doors again. Our handbags may be back in the wardrobe for now — but they have always adapted to survive. Among the exhibits is an elegant leather bag owned by Queen Mary during the 1940s, designed to carry a gas mask. Whatever life has thrown at us over the centuries, we’ve found ways to shoulder it.
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