Bags: Inside Out at the V&A review – A glitzy exploration of the not-so-humble accessory

The London museum finally opens its highly anticipated bags exhibition to the public, Olivia Petter reviews

Olivia Petter
Thursday 10 December 2020 18:13 GMT
Behind the scenes at the V&A's Bags: Inside Out exhibition

It’s a strange time to be thinking about bags. Since the pandemic began, many of us have been spending our days at home, leaving only to stock up on loo roll or, more recently, to have a substantial meal at a pub. The art of dressing up has become redundant because we’ve not had anywhere to go or anyone to impress. Crucially, since we’re rarely out of the house for long, we’ve not needed anything to carry. And so bags have been banished, along with heels and railcards, to the graveyard of items taken by coronavirus.

All the more reason, then, to dedicate an entire exhibition to bags. Not least to revive our love of the items we’ve all relegated to the bottom of the wardrobe, but to remind us of their historical, social, and sartorial significance. The V&A’s latest exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, originally due to open in April (and then November), finally managed to lift the shutters in South Kensington on Wednesday.

Presenting a deep dive into the fascinating history of this not-so-humble accessory, the exhibition is made up of more than 300 items ranging from the 16th century to the modern day. Curator Lucia Savi spent over two years carefully choosing which objects to include, sourcing 80 per cent of her selections from the 2,000 bags already in the V&A’s archive, and hand-picking the remaining 20 per cent from private collectors and celebrities – Kate Moss and Alexa Chung are among those to have loaned bags.

“With this exhibition, I really wanted to tell a story that looks at the nature of bags and their duality,” Savi tells The Independent. “They are both private and public objects that tell people who we are.” If handbags tell people who we are, then the exhibition makes clear Savi isn’t one to do things by halves – as well as the hundreds of bags curated for display, the exhibition hall itself has also been modelled on a giant handbag. Sprawling across two floors, the lower level has been designed to represent the interior and the upper floor as the exterior.

There are three sections: function, status and identity, and design and making. In the first, we see how bags have evolved in terms of practicality, with everything from military rucksacks and Louis Vuitton travel trunks to Pakistani dowry bags and totes designed to hold gas masks in the 1940s. While design and making, meanwhile, offers a fascinating look at the intricate craftsmanship that goes into creating a bag.

The “It” bags, featuring the Fendi Baguette, the Mulberry Alexa and the infamous Birkin bag. (V&A)

But it is undoubtedly the second section that will be the exhibition’s biggest draw. For it is here where visitors will find cult accessories made famous by their celebrity wearers. There is Christian Dior’s Lady Dior bag, named after the late Princess Diana, the Hermès Kelly handbag, named after Grace Kelly, and the Mulberry Alexa satchel, named after Alexa Chung. Elsewhere, Sex and the City fans will immediately gravitate towards the purple sequin Fendi Baguette – largely heralded as the first “it” bag when it was launched in 1997 – that featured in a pivotal moment of the series when a thief asked protagonist Carrie Bradshaw for her “bag” and she corrected him: “It’s a Baguette”.

Despite the catalogue of household name bags, the Birkin takes centre stage. The V&A successfully acquired the original Hermès bag on loan from a private collector. It was famously made for the English model and singer Jane Birkin in 1984 after she complained of being unable to find a leather bag she liked, while sat on a plane next to Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. Today, Birkins can sell from anywhere between £10,000 and £150,000. With its distinctive shoulder strap and “JB” initials, this Birkin is enough to put the extensive collections of Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian West to shame. 

Jane Birkin pictured with her original Birkin bag in 1996. (Rex Features)

“It’s the scarcity of the Birkin bag that makes it so desirable,” explains Savi. “You can’t walk into a shop and buy a Birkin. People want to buy into that exclusivity; it’s the idea that if you do get your hands on one, you’re a part of that world.”

Another key feature of the exhibition is the focus on bags as political statements. We see Anya Hindmarch’s 2007 “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” bag that was used as a way of discouraging plastic bag usage and Michele Pred’s “My Body My Business”, which was used as a way of empowering women. The best thing about Bags: Inside Out, though, is the variety of bags on offer. It is, ahem, a mixed bag, one in which handbags are just a small component given that they sit alongside contemporary travel trunks, Burmese shoulder totes, and 17th-century silk bags used to store herbs.

Savi has also been careful not to only include items worn by women – “there’s a misconception that they are the only ones who wear bags!” she says – which is why visitors will see traditional Japanese Inrōs, worn by men in the 1700s to carry ink pads, alongside delicate silk reticules worn by women in the late 18th century. They’ll also see Sir Winston Churchill’s despatch box from 1921, which belonged to the late prime minister when he was secretary of state for the colonies.

Sir Winston Churchill’s despatch box (V&A)

If there’s one thing missing, it’s a greater emphasis on sustainability. While there is a small window dedicated to exploring how upcycled materials have been used in accessories, it doesn’t feel quite enough to reflect the ever-increasing social and cultural commitment to environmentalism in all areas of life, particularly fashion. But perhaps this is reflective of the industry’s not-so-sustainable history.

As one of the first major exhibitions people will be able to visit in nine months, Bags: Inside Out has a lot to live up to. But having been postponed twice, this stellar exhibition, it’s safe to say, was worth waiting for. Regardless of the fact that bags have seemed obsolete for so long, Bags: Inside Out still feels relevant, and it will almost certainly have you scouring the web for your next accessories investment. Who knows? As we finally emerge from this pandemic, one of the deadliest in history, maybe that investment will come to act as a historical signifier worthy of being in an exhibition itself one day.

Bags: Inside Out, Sponsored by Mulberry, opens at the V&A on 12th December 2020. Tickets from £12.

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