The first item you see upon entering the V&A’s much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, is a 1940s handbag that was custom-made to carry a gas mask. It would be reductive to equate the pandemic to a world war – and a surgical face covering to a gas mask – but it’s a poignant demonstration of the ways in which we adapt the minutiae of our daily lives during periods of historic change. "Throughout history, handbags have morphed their function and changed their purpose," curator Lucia Savi tells me ahead of the exhibition opening, "responding and adapting according to the times."
With national lockdowns moving the show from April to September to, finally, this weekend, excitement has built over the course of a year that saw us stuck inside without much use for handbags at all. The artefacts and themes may have been chosen pre-pandemic but in opening now, as we approach would-be party season and are desperate to wear something – anything – more frivolous and fun than a functional backpack or tote, the exhibition has acquired an extra gravitas. Split into three sections, Bags: Inside Out gives due credit to the more utilitarian pieces in the handbag family – detailing the rich and varied history of ginormous travel cases and teeny tiny medicine pouches – but it’s the more fabulous items on display that really get the heart racing.
Icons of handbag history are displayed in all their glory, from Gabrielle Chanel’s quilted 2.55 to Paco Rabanne’s chainmail belt bag. In exploring status, the show proves that, on two sides of the same coin, a celebrity wearing a bag can crystallise the style’s cachet, while having a bag named after you can cement your status as a style icon. It’s Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian touting the mirrored Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 2006 Speedy handbag at the height of the ‘00s It bag craze; it’s Hermès’ 1930s Sac à dépêches becoming the most popular handbag of all time after it was renamed to honour Hollywood star Grace Kelly; it’s Princess Diana making the Lady Dior the most sought-after accessory of the mid '90s, Mulberry seeing Alexa Chung wearing one of its briefcases and creating a new sell-out style named after her, and Sarah Jessica Parker turning Saddles and Baguettes into gold.
The show is careful to demonstrate that it isn’t just celebrity associations and logomania that make an It bag but instantly recognisable design, too: as Issey Miyake’s Bao Bao, Stella McCartney’s Falabella and Lulu Guinness’ Lips prove, flashy details and big-name associations aren’t required to claim your place in fashion history. Taking social media’s influence into account, the exhibition spotlights the labels that have won the hearts of fashion fans in recent years, too. From Manu Atelier and Mansur Gavriel to Daniel Lee’s Bottega, a slew of styles have gained cult status among those in the know, holding their own alongside the big hitters as feed-friendly, more affordable or collectable.
Perhaps it’s an indication of how the pandemic has warped our concept of time but walking around the exhibition, you really see just how significant handbags are as markers of the zeitgeist. It’s hard to believe that the graffitied Louis Vuitton x Stephen Sprouse collection was launched 20 years ago, not only signalling the start of the designer-artist collaboration but kickstarting the high-low, luxury-streetwear aesthetic. Seeing Celine’s Trapeze bag instantly takes you back to its 2010 launch, which spawned the acceleration of high street catwalk copycats (forget the polka dot dress, Zara’s Trapeze rip-off was ubiquitous before the dawn of Instagram). Meanwhile, Anya Hindmarch’s "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" canvas tote reminds us that the move away from single-use plastic has been going for 13 years. While not displayed in chronological order, you leave the exhibition with the feeling that the history of fashion – and our cultural evolution – can be told through handbags alone.
We’re taken back in time through intricate 16th century sweetie purses and British politics – displays of Thatcher’s handbag and Churchill’s dispatch box will be loved by a new generation hooked on The Crown – and ahead to the future via new production methods and the sustainable innovation of recycled materials and waste-free creations. At once a boon for bag obsessives, an homage to history and a love letter to true craftsmanship, the exhibition features over 300 items and delves into every aspect of the handbag, from symbolism to status, functionality to flash. We haven't gotten much use out of our handbags this year and the next three months are looking equally devoid of glittering social events at which to tout a wristlet, clutch or purse. "We had a pause, yes – of course we don’t need a handbag while we’re at home," Lucia says. For her, though, the boom in secondhand and luxury handbag sales this year (the resale market is projected to more than double to $64 billion by 2025) means something more. "It’s about thinking to the day when you’ll wear this handbag – it’s almost like a form of optimism."
Who’s to say what our post-pandemic plus-ones will look like; perhaps we’ll stick with functional favourites or maybe we’ll resist practicality and embrace all-out, frivolous glamour instead. One thing history – and this exhibition – has taught us though: our handbags adapt as we do, and keep us company no matter what life throws at us.