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Why We Still Need Handbags Now and Their History

In a truly unfortunate turn of events, Britain shut down in response to the coronavirus the week before the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blockbuster show celebrating all things bag related—an exhibition over 18 months in the making, one of the largest ever in a museum, with loans from around the world—was scheduled to open on April 25. The performance was cancelled. So far, the pandemic’s worldwide cultural events have been very typical. But then strange things began to happen.

The idea of the handbag as a whole, as a place to store things and a symbol of identity, as an item that had become so compulsively renewable that it helped multiple fashion businesses achieve record-breaking profits, started to appear meaningless as the months of immobility dragged on. And not simply because there was concern that bags may be virus carriers when lockdown started.


If no one could go, what good was a bag? Why did we ever feel the need to have so many of them? What should we do with those additional bags, purses, and clutches? In every part of the globe, bag sales this year decreased between 10% to 28% from last year, according to statistics from the research company Euromonitor.

Suddenly, it seemed like the handbag era might have ended with the year 2020. When it occurred, if it happened, the V&A exhibition served as its obituary.

This weekend marks the release of Bags: Inside Out to the general public, and it contends that any reports of the handbag’s demise have been grossly overstated.

Bags have been entwined with both male and female identities for millennia and have survived several crises to reappear with much greater significance. The tales of handbags selling out at Dior and Hermès shops when Asian retailers reopen and life resumes a semblance of normalcy are not aberrations but a continuation of a historical trend.

It’s possible that the announcement of record vintage handbag auctions at Christie’s, the leading player in the resale market, which recorded a total of £2,266,750 (£1,712,700) during an online sale in July, including £300,000 for a crocodile Hermès Diamond Himalaya Birkin 25, is a sign of things to come. That last week’s online uproar over Houston Rockets points guard James Harden handing rapper Lil Baby a black Prada nylon duffel bag stuffed with costly presents for his birthday was a sign of the times.

According to Lucia Savi, the director of the V&A exhibition, “people kept saying it was the end of bags.” “But humanism and bags go hand in hand. We’ve always needed to transport something.

Le sac c’est nous, it turns out, even in a pandemic. Maybe the question we should be asking is why.

A Brief History of Bags

The inventor of the handbag is unknown, yet they seem to have existed virtually from the dawn of time. From 2686 to 2160 BC, bags made of leather, papyrus, and linen were discovered in the tombs of ancient Egypt. Judas Iscariot, responsible for carrying the money bag for Jesus and his followers, was one of the earliest documented owners of a purse. In ancient Greece, little leather bags were used for currency.

A gold and garnet lid discovered in the Sutton Hoo excavation and is thought to have originated from a man’s bag from the seventh century is on display at the British Museum. An Assyrian wall sculpture from the ninth century discovered in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud shows bags with a winged figure carrying what seems to be a purse.

The Canterbury Tales, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina include bags (among other literary masterpieces).

Indeed, according to Savi, the purpose of the exhibition was to highlight the living and universal nature of bags rather than to treat them as abstract works of art made of leather and fabric. Instead, she wanted to highlight the peculiar and distinctive roles that bags play in our physical and psychological well-being and how they contribute to history, not just the fashion record.

That a bag cannot be replaced, despite all of its variations.

The exhibition is the biggest to be shown in a museum that is not a museum dedicated to bags since Le Cas du Sac at the Musée de la Mode in Paris in 2004. (These bag-only museums include the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Tassenmuseum, the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, and the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul.)

Bags: Inside Out comprises more than 250 bags and bag-related items from all over the globe and is broken up into three sections: design and production, status and identification, and function and utility (bags as receptacles) (how bags are constructed).

Some iconic bags have made their way into popular cultures, like the original Jane Birkin bag, which the current owner, a collector and French shop owner, gave to the program. (Jane Birkin sold the purse at auction in 1994; it has scuffs and other wear-and-tear.) There is the Louis Vuitton Miroir that Kim Kardashian West adores, as well as the Fendi Baguette that was taken from Sarah Jessica Parker’s role in an episode of Sex and the City.

There are power bags, such as Winston Churchill’s crimson dispatch box for documents of state and Margaret Thatcher’s organized Asprey. Additionally, there are antique bags like a frog-shaped purse from the 17th century and inro, a pillbox bag from the 19th century used by Japanese men to carry medication. According to Savi, they serve as a reminder “that we haven’t created anything,” even the It bag idea from the turn of the century.

According to her, they are both extremely glitzy storage units for personal items that serve as memory vaults and covert receptacles. They also make our identities and aspirations clear to others since they are prominently displayed on the body. They represent the conflict between function and prestige, as well as within and outside.

Bags are a flag that the outer world can see and something you touch every day; their materiality is inherent to their attractiveness. They serve a dual purpose of providing private relaxation and public communication. They have a lot of things within for a little, even commonplace device.

Therefore, maybe what shouldn’t be surprising is that bags have persisted, but rather that this is the V&A’s first exhibition dedicated to them, after exhibits on shoes and hats. Even though the museum has 2,000 bags in its collection, which spans almost every curatorial division. According to the exhibition’s booklet, “each month, visitors from throughout the globe leave over 10,000 purses and luggage in the cloakrooms.”

Contrary to popular belief, even if we are going outside less because of the epidemic, we often have to carry more when we do. Thus the bags we choose become more crucial.

In the same way that individuals required bags to carry their gas masks during the First World War, Savi remarked, people now need bags to store hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, spare shoes, and all the personal protective equipment we have become used to taking on each excursion. (At the V&A exhibition, Queen Mary’s gas mask bag is displayed.)

Despite the overall downturn in the bag industry during the pandemic, it is also true, according to Beth Goldstein, the fashion, footwear, and accessories analyst at NPD Group, that certain categories, particularly the upper end and resale, have proven surprisingly resilient.

In the week after the start of the American lockdown, according to Charles Gorra, CEO of the Rebag resale site, sales surpassed those of Black Friday and Cyber Monday of 2019 combined. He attributed the increase to the need for “retail therapy” and a need for self-care.

Savi lists three additional contributing factors: the fact that bags are among the easiest fashion items to buy online, making it everyone’s current shopping destination of choice; the professional sectors that remained solvent during the pandemic maintained an income stream even as recent events curtailed discretionary spending, creating more disposable income; and the behavioural tendency, in times of crisis, to retreat to the classic, investing in pieces that hold their investment.

The market for collectable handbags, particularly those made by Hermès, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton, has been performing so well that it has outperformed fine art, classic cars, and even displaced rare whisky from its top spot as a passion investment this year, according to a paper from Art Market Research published this summer.

According to the research, “the average value” of a Hermès Kelly handbag has increased by 128 per cent since 2010. Because of the bag’s popularity, “collectors are adopting antique items from other legendary labels” because of the bag’s popularity.

Therefore, the idea that bags are a thing of the past is equally improbable, even though we may never return to the peak acquisition days before 2020 and even though styles and sizes may rise and fall with the demands of life – according to Goldstein of NPD, cross-bodies appear to be having a mini-moment. Our accessories won’t be limited to the bum bag, just as our clothes haven’t gone back to sweatpants despite the Chicken Littles’ claims that fashion has dropped. (Goldstein said that bum bags had fallen out of style.)

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Savi believes that bags have evolved into a new kind of symbol amid all the hand-wringing—or maybe even due to the hand-wringing. Instead of aspiring or indulging, instead of lamenting what we have lost, let’s be hopeful. That to sling your bag over your shoulder is to declare your conviction that one day, we’ll go outside once again.

We have realized we do need luggage, she said. Therefore that implies. More so than ever.

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