By Patricia Lightfoot
The Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam is professionally curated and beautifully presented in a restored canal-side house. I had thought that this museum might fit into the “weird museum” section of this blog, but not at all. It is a first-rate museum, where the historical and social context of the objects on display is clearly explained in text and with appropriate period paintings and photographs. The collection was started 40 years ago by collectors Hendrikje and Henrik Ivo, when they bought a leather bag covered in tortoise shell and inlaid with mother of pearl in an antiques shop in England. Their house in Amstelveen was the original home for the collection before it moved to its current location.
The collection starts on the top floor, up the red-carpeted staircase, with pieces from the sixteenth century, when both women and men carried money and personal items in bags and purses, because clothes did not have pockets. The display includes velvet purses, one particularly attractive example has red woven-thread tassels, each with a silver ball at the end, and leather purses, one with a drawstring and others with metal fittings. There are hooks to attach purses to belts, the forerunners of the Blackberry holster. For men, the carrying of such bags generally fell into disfavour in the seventeenth century, when their clothes started to feature pockets. Since then, school bags, briefcases, suitcases and bags for sports clothes and equipment have remained in regular use by boys and men, but purses have largely been carried by girls and women. Interestingly, I saw no cabinet dedicated to the twentieth-century man purse, once favoured by men in continental Western Europe.
Purses from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century had a variety of purposes, including the gaming purses that held gambling chips and money; the wedding purses filled with money that bridegrooms in France and Italy gave their brides; letter cases for love letters, other documents and notebooks; and the all-important work bags for needlework and sewing implements familiar to us from the novels of Jane Austen and her contemporaries.
The Art Deco purses of the 1920s and 1930s are particularly delightful. They are often geometric shapes and feature geometric designs. A prime example of this is a black leather purse inspired by the shape of the French cruise ship La Normandie, with the metal clasps being the ship’s funnels. Fantastical, non-geometric pieces include a stage coach, a plant pot and plant, a beaded Coke can and a beaded cupcake purse, a copy of which featured in an episode of “Sex and the city.”
There is a display of the much sought-after couturiers’ purses, including the classic Chanel purse with the gold-coloured chain and the so-called Kelly bag by Hermès that was carried by Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly Grace Kelly). The Hermès Birkin bag, named after English actress and singer Jane Birkin, is mentioned in an information panel, though the collection does not appear to include either the last-named purse or photographs of either star with “her” purse, the latter being a curious omission. There is a photograph of Madonna holding a Versace bag with appliquéd ivy leaves, which is in the collection, at the premiere of Evita in 1996.
A twentieth-century purse in the collection that is of particular cultural significance is Mrs. Thatcher’s grey leather Asprey hand bag, which was purchased at an auction of her estate. Mrs. Thatcher was regularly photographed with her purse heading into number 10 Downing Street and at meetings of world leaders, where she and Indira Gandhi were often the only women. The purse itself is not frumpy, as I had remembered, but in fact is a very elegant object.
Other themes are explored in the museum, such as the myriad materials used to make purses and bags; the evolution of school bags in the Netherlands from wooden boxes containing books, slate and stylus that hung on schoolroom walls to back packs; and the artistry and technology of beaded bags.
For anyone with an interest in design or social history, this museum is well worth a visit. The entrance and the exit are through the gift shop, which is tastefully curated.