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Bags: Inside Out – From Winston Churchill’s red dispatch box to the ‘I am not a plastic bag’

Two and a half years of work at the Victoria & Albert Museum to connect over 300 bags through their function and utility, status and identity, design and making

The Victoria and Albert museum marks the exhibition opening Bags: Inside Out on the twenty-first of November sponsored by Mulberry that will last until September 2021 in London. The collection of circa 300 bags curated by Lucia Savi is united under a three-section exposition that range in style, function, and their cultural significance. It took two and a half years to make the presentation happen. When it comes to making the selection of accessories to complete the list of the bags that will be showcased, Lucia Savi focuses on the narrative, which is to explore the objects above their function and aesthetic. 

At the beginning of her work, Savi noticed the limited research done around the topic of bags and much on other fashion items – garments, accessories, hats, and shoes. That is from where the concept, to focus on bags for this upcoming event, developed. «The idea was to look at their function, their symbolic meaning, and the making of designs throughout history and across cultures. It’s a semantic exhibition; taking bags from Elizabethan England to contemporary China», says Savi by emphasizing the different geography and chronology between the objects. The silver seal burse for the Great Seal of Elizabeth I, a bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during World War II where she put a gas mask, and Winston Churchill’s red dispatch box – are one of the rarest pieces in the collection. Even though there is no single item to highlight, as they all are part of the narrative, Savi believes that one of the most challenging objectives of the curator is to make the right selection in balancing all the objects. The first thing she did while researching was to discover around 2000 bags in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum and work on new acquisitions, loans, and dialogues with private museums to arrange the project.

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HERMÈS BAGS COLLECTION FROM BAGS: ISIDE OUT EXHIBITION AT VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM LONDON, ARTWORK BY ALESSANDRO GOBELLO

«With the exhibition, it’s never about one object», says Savi while explaining the meaning behind the name of the event – Bags: Inside Out. She could have chosen ‘handbags’ for the title but settled for ‘bags’ to show a variety of objects from dispatch boxes to briefcases, from backpacks to handbags. By including several geographies, she also wanted to make the narrative universal by showing how men and women carry these accessories. «We focus on the little dog bags that are carried by men, and pouches worn in traditional Chinese dress. I wanted to focus on history and different cultures and different techniques, to deeply understand why they are regarded as symbolic». As aesthetics plays a significant role when it comes to exhibitions, the function and message come along if not with the same value but with increased priority. The intended narrative that Lucia Savi transmitted through her project is about the bags having dual nature. It is the private versus public or inside versus the outside: the private aspect of the accessory is carrying personal belongings inside while the public makes these bags visible for the society as people hold them in hands or roll over the shoulder. The material and status of the bag might reveal who we are and what we aspire to be, defines Savi; that is why some of the bags are displayed open – to show both the design, status, and function of the accessory. Some objects disclose their prolonged use, for instance, the first-ever Birkin bag owned by Jane Birkin with a residue from the stickers and signs of worn product. Another interpreting method is to consider the making of the design as the inside structure of the bag.

In the BBC documentary, the museum has shared the story of the trunk bag that was carrying a meaningful value both for the exhibition and for Lucia Savi as she wanted to include it to connect the history of travel with bags. Brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci started their records with travel goods, in particular, trunk bags. She has emphasized its effect through identifying means of transportation used to carry those accessories, ocean liners, where it was necessary to take around twenty trunks in first class for the sake of changing outfits in two weeks of travel. At the beginning of the research, Savi didn’t realize that the museum collection had one trunk, and it was a worn Louis Vuitton trunk. It is covered with labels and stickers applied during the trips from America to England, which belonged to the wealthy American socialist, Emilie Grigsby, who moved to England from America at the beginning of the Twentieth century. The trunk was met under analysis to reveal the modes of transportation it underwent. Besides traveling on the ocean liner, there is a sticker that shows a plane trip in the Sixties in Japan with fourteen pieces of luggage. These kinds of analysis and details were thought over while bringing together bags that come from numerous backgrounds. 

The exhibition is divided into three sections: the first section reflects Function and Utility, which looks at the relationship between the valuable content and the outside of the bag, for instance, travel bags and military rucksacks. This fraction brings Vivien Leigh’s attaché case along with other rare and renowned pieces. The utility and function lead to the second section – the concept of Status and Identity, which include historical and contemporary objects connected to the celebrities and their status. For instance, It-bags and bags from other cultures – from Africa to China to Central America – represent status through symbols and decorations. For example, the Fendi Baguette bag was worn by Sara Jessica Parker in the Sex and the City television series or the Marc Jacobs bag spread over by Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.

In this section, there are bags, the surface of which is used to express in words the owner believes. The ‘I am not a plastic bag’ designed by Anya Hindmarch in 2007 is a result of collaboration with a social movement organization: We Are What We Do, that works on raising awareness around the issue of plastic, pollution, and reusable materials. Other works that join the ‘carrying a message’ chapter are Stella McCartney’s piece realized by plastic collected from the ocean and ‘My Body My Business’ handbag by artist Michele Pred. Lucia Savi also mentioned a workshop she participated in, organized by Elvis & Kresse that re-engineers waste materials and uses decommissioned London’s fire hoses as a raw material; the bag is present in the exhibition. The trinity closes with a section called Design and Making to present the collaborations between artists, fashion designers, and architects in producing new designs. This part will explore different forms and patterns of the bags, using the examples of the chainmail bag by Paco Rabanne, Thom Brown’s handbag in the shape of his dog, and the milk carton Chanel bag.

Since 2005, sustainability has been a strategic priority for the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the past three years, they have been collaborating with Julie’s Bicycle in designing an updated sustainability policy for the museum. The objective was to implement strategies that would reduce energy consumption, carbon emission, and increase green efficiencies. The museum is a member of the South Kensington 1851 Carbon Reduction Masterplan and has a recruited voluntary team of enthusiasts called ‘Green Champions’ from different departments, whose aim is to promote the V&A’s environmental thinking.  In regards to exhibitions, according to the annual report of this year, the museum has held FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate, and Cars: Accelerating the Modern World incorporating the sustainability elements. Along with presentations, the museum holds lectures, workshops and runs a sustainability blog on its website to raise awareness and educate their audience. 


IMAGE GALLERY

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL
Sponsored by Mulberry, the exhibition will be open until September 12th, 2021

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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