It’s hard to imagine what sort of outfit you would wear to complement a matching handbag and shoes made from toadskin. Or, who would have the confidence to carry off – or even just carry – the bag made from a leopard’s head.
A visit to the appealingly specific Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam prompts unexpected questions, like, how did the world’s largest collection of bags, pouches, purses, reticules and clutches end up in an elegant canalside townhouse complete with 17th-century painted ceilings?
When, 30 years ago, local antiques dealer Hendrikje Ivo bought a tortoiseshell bag made in 1820, she was hooked, and – what woman can’t empathise with this – was compelled to acquire more and more. When the count reached 3000, her only defence was to declare it an academic exercise and make the collection public.
Now, more than 4000 bags line the shelves on three floors of the museum. The earliest artefact is no more than a bronze clasp dating from 1420, but its Gothic design shows that even then decoration was as important as function. The pouches and purses that follow it chronologically, all the way to recent works by Vivienne Westwood and Prada, are fascinating demonstrations of the development of what has always been considered essential to any smart woman’s outfit.
The must-have element was literal, at first, before the sewn-in pocket was invented for women’s dresses. Until then, pouches had to be hung from belts to carry essentials like money, keys and handkerchiefs. Not until the 19th century, when the flat pouch was designed to hang inside a skirt and was reached through a slit, did someone have a lightbulb moment, and design the pocket as we know it.
This allowed the handbag to branch off in a more look-at-me direction, and every glass case here has its marvels. There are intricately patterned reticules made by knitting tiny coloured glass beads threaded on horsehair, in a predetermined order so complicated to devise that it seems impossible: yet here they are. Other bags are delicately embroidered in silk or sewn with pearls and crystals, feathers and lace.
Perhaps even more astonishing than the detailed decoration are the materials in increasingly eye-catching bags: velvet and straw were surpassed by wood, cactus fibre, ivory, tortoiseshell and iron filigree. The advent of synthetics gave designers a new range to work with, and bags were made from telephone wire, aluminium, steel, Perspex, plastic and vinyl.
Horribly fascinating to today’s eco-sensitive eyes are bags made from the skins of snakes, horses, lizards, stingrays, sharks, eels, zebras, crocodiles and ostriches. The toadskin set is surpassed in bizarreness only by the bag made from an armadillo – with face and feet.
Form and function had an ever more strained relationship in the 20th century. First-class passengers on the Normandie, the world’s most luxurious cruise liner in 1935, were presented with clutches shaped like the ship, the clasp shaped as funnels. There’s a woven bag like a fish, another like a cupcake, covered in Swarovski crystals, as seen in Sex and the City. Strangest of all is the bright red bag that resembles an old-fashioned telephone, and works, too – as long as the woman carrying goes no further than the length of its cable.
Among examples from all the big fashion designers is Madonna’s ivy Versace bag from the premiere of Evita. There’s also Imelda Marcos’s wooden evening bag, which is, perhaps, the most surprising exhibit of all. Why? Well, there aren’t any matching shoes …
The Museum of Bags and Purses is in central Amsterdam at Herengracht 573: tassenmuseum.nl
Emirates A380 superjumbo flies daily from Auckland to Amsterdam (via Sydney or Melbourne) with direct connections at Dubai and onwards to 33 European destinations: emirates.co.nz
– Herald on Sunday
By Pamela Wade