Ultimate Accessory: Handbag

Featuring innovative designs from Mulberry to Karl Lagerfeld, statement handbags worn by Margaret Thatcher to Sarah Jessica Parker, the heritage of Hermès to the street-wear of Off-White, the V&A will open Bags: Inside Out exhibition on 25 April 2020. Dedicated to the ultimate accessory, the exhibition will explore our longstanding fascination with the bags from designer handbags to dispatch boxes, vanity cases to military rucksacks.

With and an exclusive look inside the world of the factory and atelier; Bags: Inside Out provides an exceptional look at this global obsession. 

Bags often project statements to the world and conceal our beloved belongings. The exhibition will examine around 300 objects varying in scale from tiny purses held on a fingertip to luxurious travel trunks from the worldwide heritage of these highly covetable objects from the 16th century to today.

The first section of the exhibition on Function will look at bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings. From holiday outfits to confidential documents, make-up to money. Rare exhibits on show include a large embroidered purse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s red dispatch box and Vivien Leigh’s attaché case. A striking Louis Vuitton trunk from the early 1900s will also take centre stage.

The second section of the exhibition Status and Identity examines the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite. Featuring a Hermès ‘Kelly’ named in honour of Grace Kelly and a ‘Lady Dior’ handbag named after Princess Diana, the exhibition will explore the powerful and influential world of celebrity endorsement. The use of bags as a blank canvas for slogans, personal statements and political messages and their role as a public platform to share beliefs and convictions will be represented through objects including an anti-slavery reticule bag from 1825, the ‘I am NOT a Plastic Bag’ tote by Anya Hindmarch and a ‘My Body My Business’ handbag by artist and activist Michele Pred.

The final section of the show will look at the Design and Making process from sketch to sample, sewing to selling. A ‘maker’s table’ will allow visitors to get up close and personal with bag making processes and materials Sketches, samples and prototypes from international fashion houses and the UK luxury brand Mulberry will show the inventive early stages of the design process. Explored through the design process, this section will examine 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. A 17th century purse in the shape of a frog, Thom Browne’s handbag in the form of his dog Hector and a Chanel bag transformed into a milk carton will explore the surrealism and humour evoked through accessories.

Lucia Savi, curator of Bags: Inside Out at the V&A, said: ‘From a lavish 16th century burse made for royalty to the everyday tote bag, this exhibition offers an understanding and insight into the function, status, design and making of bags across the world and throughout history. These portable, yet functional accessories have long fascinated men and women with their dual nature that combines private and public. By exploring their continuing importance in our lives and as part of the history of design the exhibition highlights the V&A’s mission to illuminate the past and inspire designers of the future.’ The exhibition will be open until 31 January 2021 at Gallery 40, V&A Museum.

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