"Bags: Inside Out" / Fashion’s status symbols or functional objects?

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“Third time’s a charm” as the old saying goes. 

After two previous opening dates having been cancelled due to countrywide lockdowns in the England, “Bags: Inside Out”, a comprehensive exhibition on handbags, purses, backpacks, cases and valises finally opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on December 12th. And not a moment too soon for culture starved fashionistas who have been hiding behind their computer screens all year. 

Sophisticated, awe-inspiring and ingeniously showcased, “Bags: Inside Out” feels like a stylish journey around the world, through different eras and accompanied by some familiar faces. In fact, exiting the V & A after a press preview, I instinctually turned left towards the luxury department stores of Knightsbridge and the international brand flagship shops on Sloane Street, craving a new handbag to carry forward the inspiring feeling I’d just experienced. 

Yet an exhibit is only as wonderful as what we the visitors bring to it—be it our knowledge or enthusiasm about a particular subject and the handbags on display inside the fashion galleries of the iconic V & A are definitely best viewed with some background information. So _Flaunt_ received the special treatment and went behind the scenes of “Bags: Inside Out” with its curator Dr. Lucia Savi. For Dr. Savi this exhibition is a labor of love, having previously worked as an assistant curator and research assistant on two previous V & A exhibits, “The Glamour of Italian Fashion” back in 2014 and their “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” exhibit in 2015.


Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' gold speedy handbags in Sydney, Australia, 2006. Photo by PhotoNews International Inc/Getty Images

![Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' gold speedy handbags in Sydney, Australia, 2006. Photo by PhotoNews International Inc/Getty Images](https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/56c346b607eaa09d9189a870/1607638073086-CEGE0ESQ88KPDE4EXTT0/Flaunt_Bags-2.jpg)

Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' gold speedy handbags in Sydney, Australia, 2006. Photo by PhotoNews International Inc/Getty Images


“It’s my first as head curator and it’s been an amazing two and half years working on the project,” the pretty, warm and well spoken Dr. Savi, a PhD in Fashion History from Kingston University, admits. “The challenge for every curator is to decide the final selection of objects. With such a wide topic—from the Fifteenth Century, to today, both men and women, bags from all over the world—it was really challenging to go from 2,000 bags in the collection and narrow it down.” The very first steps to creating the exhibition in fact started for Dr. Savi in the V & A storeroom, a mythical archive of precious artifacts where the curator went through the thousands of bags owned by the cultural institution. 

Inspiration was as much about the outer look of the objects as their hidden secrets for Dr. Savi. “When I was looking at those bags, what really inspired me early on was to open them and see what was inside,” she tells us, “peeking inside to see the content—some of them still had traces of make up in them but also you can find all sorts of things in those bags, like combs, theater tickets… it’s really interesting to open the object and see what is inside.”

Lemiere, Opera bag and contents, c.1910, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

![Lemiere, Opera bag and contents, c.1910, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London](https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/56c346b607eaa09d9189a870/1607641299506-48KSPAG02542FQYREI2H/Flaunt_Bags-13.jpg)

Lemiere, Opera bag and contents, c.1910, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Lait de Coco evening bag AutumnWinter 2014, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

![Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Lait de Coco evening bag AutumnWinter 2014, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London](https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/56c346b607eaa09d9189a870/1607642343400-KNS8TNPE1CA8SI42AOWY/Flaunt_Bags-8.jpg)

Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Lait de Coco evening bag AutumnWinter 2014, Paris (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So did the intriguing title of the exhibition come from that initial experience inside the V & A storeroom? In part, Dr. Savi explains, but more so it relates to the fact that “bags are very private possessions but also very public, they’re visible on the body. We use them as a receptacle for all our personal belongings we don’t want anybody to see what’s inside the bag, but at the same time we show our bags publicly on the street and they are a symbol of who we are and who we aspire to be.” She goes on to say, “I think this duality, public vs. private, outside vs. inside but also function vs. status is really at the core of the title of the exhibition, the design of the exhibition as well, and the way in which we’ve organized the sections.”

“Bags: Inside Out”, Dr. Savi points out, is not an exhibition organized in chronological order, rather the Italian-born fashion historian “wanted to explore the subject thematically and cross culturally, because it really offers us with a new way of looking at the significance of bags.” She continues that, “if you look at how men and women from around the world have carried their belongings from A to B—because what bags are are containers for our most personal belongings. And people throughout history have needed them in different forms and shapes, and I thought really to understand today’s obsession almost in our contemporary fashion world with these accessories, we needed to go back and look at how people have used them in the past and around the world.”

Divided in three sections—Fashion + Utility, Status + Identity and Design + Making—the exhibition kicks off with a video of women and men around the world, from different eras using bags of all types and sizes. It’s a great flash reminder that our modern-day handbags have roots in far away civilizations and centuries long gone by. 



Included in the first section is a burse connected to Queen Elizabeth I (yes, the current Queen of England doesn’t have the monopoly on distinctive handbags!) which contained a silver matrix used to make wax impressions used to seal and sign them, Winston Churchill’s despatch box, Margaret Thatcher’s handbag as well as backpacks used by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam war and utilitarian purses that could carry a gas mask during WWII. Scattered throughout the exhibition are pieces from all over the world, including a dowry bag from Sindh, Pakistan, Japanese and Korean medicine bags, as well as a stunning beaded shoulder bag crafted by the Cree or Athapaskan people of North America. 

Other standouts in the exhibit, which mixes pieces that are part of the V & A permanent collection with loans from institutions and private collectors, are so many that it’s difficult to list them. But a quick mental run-through of those objects that emotionally appealed to me include some of the “It bags” like Carrie Bradshaw’s ‘Sex and the City’ Fendi sequined ‘Baguette’ from 1997, an Hermès leather ‘Kelly’ handbag from 2018, named after movie-star-turned-princess Grace Kelly and ailing British artist Tracey Emin’s collaboration with Longchamp, the perfectly technicolored ‘International Woman’ suitcase.   

Luxury leather goods brand Mulberry is the perfect sponsor of this fascinating exhibit, which includes two iconic “It bags” produced by the British brand—the Bayswater and the Alexa.“For me these two bags are part of the story I wanted to tell in the second section, which is about celebrity endorsement and how bags become a status symbol, and the story of the “It” bag,” elaborates Dr. Savi. “The Mulberry Bayswater with a Kate Moss endorsement became one of those iconic pieces… So I really wanted to include it in the exhibition from the beginning.” Also featured in this section is the original prototype for the Birkin bag made by Hermès in the mid-80s specifically for actress and fashion icon Jane Birkin. 



“For an exhibition on bags we needed to have a Birkin definitely!” Exclaims Dr. Savi, continuing “two and a half years working on this exhibition it was something I knew clearly from the beginning—I knew I wanted to have a Birkin. I am just so very thrilled that we managed to have _the_ Birkin, not just _a_ Birkin! That bag talks to me so much, because it’s not in pristine conditions, like it’s just come out of the shop. It has been lived, and it’s been used and you can still see it on it, which I think is very fascinating. And also you can see the fact that Jane Birkin used it from the stickers that she was applying on it.” Stickers on a Hermès bag, that is utter sacrilege, you may be thinking right about now. But for a fashion curator and a fashionista at heart like Dr. Savi, it’s a piece of history and she confides that “if you google pictures of her \[Jane Birkin\] and Hermès’ Birkin you’ll see different types of stickers, she would change them. It’s personalization, back in the 80’s, because this bag is from 1984, and you can still see on the surface of the bag the residue of the stickers which I think is fantastic.” The original Birkin prototype made for Jane Birkin also included a long shoulder strap which is no longer produced by Hermès with the bag today. 

In the first section of “Bags: Inside Out” one of the standouts is the vintage, restored Louis Vuitton trunk which belonged to well-travelled American socialite Emilie Grigsby. It offers a peek inside at one of her most intimate objects and was recently minimally restored.

“The trunk is in our collection and there is a nice story about it,” explains Dr. Savi. “When I started working on this exhibition I wanted to have a section devoted to travel, because one of the main function of bags is to be used when traveling—either short distances when commuting to work or long distances. And throughout history men and women have traveled in different ways.” She elaborates further, “the means of transport have definitely influenced the shape of bags that we carry with us—if you were traveling by ocean liner, you’d carry up to 20 trunks if you were traveling first class, if you were traveling by train you would carry much more compact luggage and so forth…” 

Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 03.JPG

![Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 03.JPG](https://assets-global.website-files.com/62ee0bbe0c783a903ecc0ddb/6472d17a41ada893069b47f8_Bags%2B-%2BInside%2BOut%252C%2Bsponsored%2Bby%2BMulberry%2B03.jpeg)

Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 17.JPG

![Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 17.JPG](https://assets-global.website-files.com/62ee0bbe0c783a903ecc0ddb/6472d17b41ada893069b4839_Bags%2B-%2BInside%2BOut%252C%2Bsponsored%2Bby%2BMulberry%2B17.jpeg)

But a trunk is not really a bag in the way we think about bags today, so I asked Dr. Savi about the thought process behind the choice. “To me it was really important to have a trunk even if it’s not necessarily a bag, I mean we really stretched the analogy, this is the biggest stretch I’ve done here is with this trunk.” Why do it then? “For two reasons: number one, to highlight the different ways people travel with luggage and the second reason is to really remind people that some of the brands which produce some of the most iconic handbags today—such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Prada, Gucci, you name them—they all started with travel luxury goods or saddlery. So they are really connected to movement and transport and some of the craftsmanship, some of the know-how continue to be used and are really successful today. We need to always remember where they were coming from.”

In another short video halfway through the exhibition, it’s reassuring to find movies’ stars and cinema classics as part of the history of bags. George Clooney’s masterful packing scene featured in ‘Up in the Air’, Sean Connery’s James Bond and his bag of spy tricks, and Mary Poppins’ carpet bag—the latter probably responsible for many a fashionista, including my own, romance with large handbags.

In the third section of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to a special table, a sort of behind the scenes look at how bags are made. Dr. Savi outlines the thought process behind this very hands-on part of the exhibit — even if the display is dotted with “do not touch” signs. “One of the aspect of this inside/out that we explore, especially in the third section of the exhibition is the design and making, so going behind the scenes and understanding how these beautifully crafted objects are made — what are the steps to make them, how designers are working to get inspired, how do they collaborate with artists and architects and designers to create sometimes bags which are considered wearable art.” Wearable art because as Dr. Savi explains further, “the surface of the bag often is so big that it can be used as a blank canvas. So really we’re playing a lot with contrast and duality both in the title, in the exhibition themes and sections and also in the design of the exhibition.”

Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 05.JPG

![Bags - Inside Out, sponsored by Mulberry 05.JPG](https://assets-global.website-files.com/62ee0bbe0c783a903ecc0ddb/6472d17a41ada893069b47ef_Bags%2B-%2BInside%2BOut%252C%2Bsponsored%2Bby%2BMulberry%2B05.jpeg)

Dr. Savi elaborates further on the factory bench, “all of the bags are behind glass, but this large table is an open display and we were able to create this through the generosity of many brands, including Mulberry, which donated the materials on the table so we have pieces of hardware, hides, paper patterns, really amazing to see all this coming together. And then in the middle of this table we have interviews with three designers and makers that explain the behind the scenes of designing and creating bags.” Out of those interviews, one stands out with Elvis & Kresse co-founder Kresse Wesling, where she points out that “the luxury industry was failing the planet,” which inspired her brand to come up with a guilt-free sustainable “It bag”. The idea was so successful that three years ago the Burberry Foundation created a partnership with Elvis & Kresse to “to transform at least 120 tonnes of leather off-cuts from the production of Burberry products into a range of new luxury accessories and homeware.” 

Perhaps our new principles of purchasing with a conscience and looking for more sustainable fashion could also help explain another great point made by Dr. Savi. “The vintage market for bags during the pandemic had a huge success!” She admits, “people were home but were still buying, maybe to treat themselves, but also to find a way of escaping—the vintage market has just gained and has been quite stable.”

So what does a world-class fashion curator carry as her own bag? She answers, “today I have two bags. One is my functional and practical rucksack \[backpack\]—I’m a cyclist, but it is also stylish. The other one is a Mulberry bag that is smaller and looks much smarter.” And what does Dr. Savi carry inside her bag(s)? I feel like this may be a bit intimate, but I ask anyway… The backpack, she reveals is “big enough to carry a change of shoes, hand sanitizer, two bottles of water, some notes, mask, mobile, keys—very important—sometimes a book, but nowadays I can’t read because I ride to work. A complete change of outfit, my helmet and lights.” And in the smaller bag? “In there I have another mask, some beautiful cards my colleagues gave me for the exhibition opening, the pass to the museum, I can’t go anywhere without it, and the key. And another set of hand sanitizer and an umbrella, it’s raining today.”

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“Bags: Inside Out” is on view starting December 12th at the [Victoria and Albert Museum](https://www.vam.ac.uk/) in London. 

All images courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Written by E. Nina Rothe