2nd August 1963: Three handbags from Harrods. (Photo by Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

It’s more than just a bag

The V&A’s new exhibition demonstrates that a handbag is indeed much more than its function

The most famous handbag in literature features in the new V&A exhibition, Bags: Inside Out. Not – as in the immortal line from The Importance of Being Ernest delivered by Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell – “A handbag?” but in the fabulous scene where Margaret Rutherford identifies the bag in question in which the young Jack Worthing was left at Victoria Station.

It is included in a series of film clips that expresses the importance of the handbag: here we find James Bond’s attaché case in From Russia with Love (it doubled as an actual weapon), Meryl Streep’s handbag, also part of her armoury, in The Devil Wears Prada and Mary Poppins’ Gladstone bag.

Chatelaine, mounted on replica garment
1863–85 (credit: V&A)

The handbag is one of those accessories, like shoes, which not only completes an outfit, but is invested with a fashion significance far beyond its size and function. For all that men carry briefcases and man bags, the handbag is essentially female. It expresses the truth that women simply have more stuff to carry than men: a typical handbag will have keys, lipstick and maybe a compact, a brush, handkerchief or tissues, tampons, perhaps a baby bottle and nappy, a phone, (nowadays) a mask, maybe a book and definitely a purse.

Men have pockets. Teeny weeny bags – and there are some in this exhibition which can only be usefully suspended from a finger – carry a debit card, lipstick and keys. The most radical thing Germaine Greer ever did as a feminist was to announce that she did not carry a handbag.

But the evil side of handbags, which, funnily enough, does not feature in this fascinating show, sponsored by Mulberry, is the exorbitant, wildly excessive price of celebrity handbags. The It Bag was the most repulsive aspect of fashion in the Nineties, whereby celebrity endorsement could lend to quite an ugly accessory the cachet of being carried by Sarah Jessica Parker or Kim Kardashian; henceforth it would cost about ten times its actual worth and can still attract vast sums at auction.

The display case of celebrity handbags was the one bit of this exhibition I didn’t bother photographing, whereas the earlier handbags linked to actresses or celebrities were actually beautiful: the original Birkin bag, made for Jane Birkin, is well worn now, but remains an aesthetically satisfying item, functional and brilliantly designed. Mrs Thatcher’s famous handbag – as much a verb as an accessory – is actually rather attractive. And the one bag here I’d really like to own is Vivien Leigh’s simple attaché case in red, to hold her documents. Winston Churchill’s features too, pleasingly battered.

Louis Vuitton Malle Haute trunk c.1900, Paris
(credit: V&A)

A functional object will be ultimately expressed as a fashion item – that’s the way human beings are made, particularly women – but it’s interesting how variously the handbag appears over time. The very first case in the exhibition is given over to military bags – that’s when men needed to carry bits and pieces too, and there’s a certain beauty in the way they meet their purpose. In the eighteenth century, women used pockets to carry things they needed, and a deep pocket could be tucked away inside the hoop of a dress; in the nineteenth, necessary items like keys and scissors were decoratively displayed on a chatelaine, suspended on chains from the waist.

But the idea of a bag simply as a thing to carry other things in was most simply expressed by the burse, the heavily embroidered bag that held Queen Elizabeth’s great seal in the sixteenth century. That was carried by a man as a prestigious, functional item. The other simple variant was the coin purse; there’s a lovely little one here.

What is interesting is how some designers originated from the explosion in travel in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s a beautiful Louis Vuitton trunk here, designed for an American heiress, Emilie Busbey Grisby, in which a little silk dress reposes flat under the cushioned lid; these were pre-eminently functional items which called for an army of porters to carry them from boats to trains. Yet Louis Vuitton or Longchamp, the saddlers, is associated now with its logo and the celebrity designer versions of its bag, like that of Tracey Emin.

Upstairs there is a fascinating display of the craft of the bag maker – from the animal hides that is the raw material for most, to the precision digital cutting of the pattern that is finally stitched together. There’s a video of a bag maker who talks sensuously about the character of leather (the most useful tool in his kit is the hammer he uses to flatten seams) and another of an eco-conscious bag lady who reuses objects to make bags, including a fireman’s hose.

Hermès Jane Birkin’s ‘Birkin’ bag 1984, Paris. Courtesy of Catherine B Paris (credit: V&A)

What the exhibition suggests, but never quite says, is that beautiful design is separable from brands, that a handbag can combine beauty and utility without flaunting a logo, and that the celebrity bag, costing thousands of pounds is actually rather obscene. This show demonstrates that a handbag is indeed more than its function and that it says a good deal more about is owner than she thinks.

The exhibition Bags: Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry, opens 12 December 12 2020. Tickets from £12.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover