T hey help define character, they are exclamation marks on outfits and they are instantly recognisable signifiers of status worldwide. Handbags in the 21st century are not only trophy items but they are also drivers of a multi billion pound luxury market that continues to grow in all areas, from primary sales to the auction house collectors’ market, and on vintage re-sale and rental sites.
Given the aggrandised halo surrounding what is essentially a functional item to carry one’s private belongings, it is timely for the V&A to stage a dedicated exhibition to this most revered accessory. There will no doubt be Bottega Veneta’s Cassette bags (the hit of 2020) jostling with Chanel’s latest maxi flap tweed style and re-editions of Dior’s saddle bag lining up at the entrance of Bags: Inside Out opening on 21 November. “From a lavish 16th century purse made for royalty to the everyday tote bag, this exhibition offers an understanding and insight into the function, status, design and making of bags across the world and throughout history. These portable, yet functional accessories have long fascinated men and women with their dual nature that combines private and public,” says the show’s curator, Luca Savi.
The exhibition is themed into three sections: Function (including Winston Churchill’s red dispatch box and Vivien Leigh’s attaches case), Status and Identity (featuring Fendi Baguette bags and a gold Louis Vuitton Speedy) and finally Design and Making that zones in on the complex technical processes of handbag engineering, that requires specialist artisan skill sets.
With sustainability inspiring a major re-think on the meaning of luxury, the handbag has also become a symbol of ‘buy less, buy better’ excellence, with certain designs and limited editions capable of buffeting trends and holding their value over time. That is some achievement in the volatile market of luxury. As Sotheby's upcoming Handbag and Accessories auction reveals, the market value of a handbag is a carefully calibrated balance of material (ostrich, alligator, calfskin, lizard), rarity, condition and iconic status.
There is a fresh appreciation on the subtleties of colour. Who can resist the charms of a Bottega Veneta Hobo Bag in Desert Rose Intrecciato Nappa that encapsulates the trend for millennium pink? Or an Hermès Birkin 25 Vert Criquet Epsom Leather with Gold Hardware that neatly surmises our aspiration to be green and clean? Dior’s saddle bag first created by John Galliano in 2000 became a smash hit as part of Sarah Jessica Parker’s uniform. It’s unconventional shape and equestrian roots have been re-appraised by Maria Grazia Chiuri who reintroduced it into the Dior canon in 2018, with styles in embroidered canvas appealing to the growing taste in artisanship.
These novelties point to the relationship we forge with handbags – they are like pets that we cherish, name and even adorn with accessories including key fobs and silk scarves. We not only carry handbags, we ‘wear’ them, with the smooth mechanisms, soft suede linings, inner pockets and exterior finesse providing a constant source of delight.