In one case of really unfortunate timing was the week leading up to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blockbuster show, which celebrated everything about the bag – an 18-month exhibition, one of the largest in a museum, with items on loan from around the world The UK opened on April 25th and closed in response to the coronavirus. The show has been postponed.
So far, so normal for global cultural events during the pandemic. But then something unusual began to occur.
Over the months of stasis, the entire concept of the handbag, this storage space and hallmark of personality, this accessory that had become so obsessively renewable that it generated record profits for numerous fashion brands, seemed irrelevant. And not just because there were fears at the beginning of the lockdown that bags could be virus carriers.
What was the point of a bag if no one could go out? Why did we ever think that we even need so many of them? What should we do with all of these extra bags, purses and clutches? According to data from Euromonitor, a research company, bag sales in all regions of the world this year fell by 10 to 28 percent compared to the previous year.
Suddenly it seemed as if the age of the handbag had actually come to an end in 2020. With the V&A show, when it happened, when it happened, as an obituary.
This weekend, Bags: Inside Out is finally open to the public, and it suggests that any rumor of the handbag death has been grossly exaggerated.
In fact, bags have been intertwined with both masculine and feminine identities for centuries and have weathered several crises only to return with even greater significance. The reports by Dior and Hermès of the handbag sale as a reopening of stores in Asia and the return of life to quasi-normalcy are actually not anomalies, but part of a historical pattern.
News of record auctions of vintage handbags at Christie’s, the dominant force in the resale market, could hit a total of $ 2,266,750, including $ 300,000 for a Hermès Diamond Himalaya Birkin 25 crocodile, during an online sale in July be a harbinger of the future. That the Hullabaloo was a sign of the times on social media last week about Houston Rockets point guard James Harden, who gave rapper Lil Baby a black Prada nylon travel bag with very expensive goodies for his birthday.
“People kept saying it was the end of the bags,” said Lucia Savi, the curator who put the V&A show together. “But bags go hand in hand with humanity. We always had to wear something. “
Even in a pandemic, it turns out that le sac c’est nous. Maybe we should ask why.
A brief history of handbags
It’s impossible to know who invented the handbag, but they seem to have been with us almost from the start. In the tombs of ancient Egypt from the years 2686 to 2160 BC Bags made of linen, papyrus and leather were found. In ancient Greece, small leather bags were used to hold coins. One of the first known wallet owners was Judas Iscariot, whose job it was to carry the wallet for Jesus and his disciples.
The British Museum has a gold and garnet lid, believed to have come from a seventh-century man’s pocket and was found during the Sutton Hoo excavation. There are bags depicted in an Assyrian wall carving found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud in the ninth century that shows a winged figure that looks like a purse.
Bags play a role in “The Canterbury Tales”, “Pride and Prejudice” and “Anna Karenina” (among other literary masterpieces).
Indeed, Ms. Savi said her goal on the show is to educate the vibrancy and universality of bags – not to treat them as sculptures made of leather and fabric, but to reveal the particularly unique role they play in both our physical and our lives play in our psychic life. and the way they become part of not only the fashion record but history as well.
That, despite all the iterations, there is no substitute for a bag.
Hence the show, the largest one that is dedicated to bags and takes place in a museum that, since “Le Cas du Sac” in 2004 in the Musée de la Mode in Paris, is no longer a pure bag museum. (These purely pocket museums include the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul, the Mug Museum or Museum for Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, and the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Ark.)
“Bags: Inside Out” consists of more than 250 bags and bag-related parts from all over the world and is divided into three parts: Function and usefulness (bag as container); Status and identity (bags as celebrity totems); and design and manufacture (how bags are built).
There are famous bags of this type that have permeated the pop culture imagination, like the first Birkin, made for Jane Birkin and loaned for the show by its current owner, a collector and French boutique owner. (Ms. Birkin auctioned the bag in 1994, and it contains scratches and other signs of use.) In an episode of Sex and the City and the Louis Vuitton Miroir, the Fendi Baguette is known to have been stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, mistress of Kim Kardashian West.
There are power bags like Margaret Thatcher’s textured Asprey and Winston Churchill’s red mailing box for government papers. And there are historical bags like an inro, a 19th-century pill box used by Japanese men to carry medicines, and a 17th-century purse in the shape of a frog. They remind us, said Ms. Savi, “that we didn’t invent anything,” including the millennium concept of the It bag.
“They are both a very glamorous container of personal items that acts as a kind of secret container and a container of memories,” she said. “At the same time, they are very clearly visible on the body and tell people who we are and who we want to be. They embody the tension between inside and outside as well as function and status. “
Bags are something you touch every day – their materiality is endemic for their attractiveness – as well as a flag that the outside world can see. As such, they play a dual role as personal comfort and public communication. For a relatively small, even everyday object, they contain a multitude.
So what should perhaps surprise is not that bags endure, but that this is the first show V&A has dedicated to them, after shows on shoes and hats. This despite the fact that the museum’s collection includes 2,000 bags in almost every curatorial department and, according to the catalog accompanying the exhibition, “every month visitors from all over the world leave around 10,000 handbags and suitcases in their cloakrooms”.
What’s in a bag?
It might not be intuitive, but even if we go out less during the pandemic, we often have to carry more when we go out, which means the bags we choose are increasingly important.
You need to store hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, extra shoes and all the personal protective equipment that we are now used to to go on trips – just like during World War I, as Ms. Savi noted, people needed bags to store their gasoline to keep masks. (Queen Mary’s gas mask pouch is on display at the V&A show.)
Beth Goldstein, fashion, shoes and accessories analyst at NPD Group, also said that despite the general slowdown in the bag market during the pandemic, certain segments have shown themselves to be particularly resilient, particularly in the upper-priced and resale segments.
Charles Gorra, the executive director of the Rebag resale outlet, said that shortly after the lockdown began in the US, they had a week of sales that was bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday of 2019 combined. He attributes the growth to the need for “retail therapy” and the desire for self-sufficiency.
Ms. Savi cited three additional factors: the occupational sectors that remained solvent during the pandemic maintained an income stream even as current events curtailed discretionary spending and created more disposable income; the fact that of all fashion items, bags are among the easiest to buy online, the current shopping destination of any choice; and the tendency in times of crisis to withdraw to the classic and to put money in pieces that retain their investment and their aesthetic value.
An article by Art Market Research published this summer found that the market for collectible handbags – especially bags from brands like Hermès, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton – “does so well that it outperforms art, vintage cars, and even rarely knocks whiskey off its shelf.” Number one as an investment in passion this year. “
Since 2010, the “average value” of a Hermès Kelly handbag has risen by 129 percent. The bag’s success has created a trickle effect and now “collectors are embracing vintage items from other iconic brands”.
So while we may never return to the prime acquisition days before 2020, and styles and sizes can rise and fall with the demands of life, cross-body seems to be having a small moment, according to Ms. Goldstein of the NPD. The theory that bags are a thing of the past is also unlikely. Just like our wardrobes have not returned to sweatpants even though the Chicken Littles are crying that fashion has fallen, our accessories are not reduced to the belt bag. (Mrs. Goldstein said fanny packs had already fallen out of favor.)
In fact, Ms. Savi believes that with all of that hand pressing – perhaps precisely because of the hand pressing – bags have become a different kind of symbol. Not of pursuit or forbearance, not of what we have lost, but of optimism and hope. When you swing your bag on your shoulder, you have to make a statement of faith: one day we will go out again.
And that means she said: “We realized that we need bags. Actually more than ever. “