Amsterdam: Bags to die for, darling

Amsterdam: Bags to die for, darling

Graham Reid has his breath taken away by a discreet museum in the Netherlands.

Behind a rather ordinary door off a quiet canal-street in Amsterdam is one of the city’s most extraordinary museums, and this in a city which isn’t short of museums.

From the Rembrandt-stacked Rijksmuseum and the enormous Van Gogh collection to the ever-popular Sex Museum and one given over to tattoos (more interesting than you may think), Amsterdam seems awash with collections, displays and objects in glass cases.

But behind the door on 17th century Herengracht, an easy stroll from the central Dam area, is a museum of bags and purses. And when the displays aren’t breathtakingly beautiful they are historic, funny, puzzling or just plain odd.

The collection, assembled over three decades, was originally housed in the home of collectors Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo but rapidly outgrew the space available.

A businessman – who wishes to remain anonymous – was so impressed by what he saw that he bought the Ivos the current building for the Museum of Bags and Purses which opened in July 2007.

Last year it was voted the Best Specialist Museum in Amsterdam by the city’s Time Out magazine.

It is easy to see why. More than three floors in the beautifully preserved house are given over to literally thousands of bags, cases and purses with explanatory notes. The history of these objects is also witness to the changing times.

An alms bag from the 17th century bears the beaded inscription “remember the pore 1630” . When railway travel became popular, luggage bags needed to be more sturdy (leather and crocodile skin became popular) and with flat bottoms. In the 20th century, new times offered new materials, such as plastics, mesh and steel beads.

In addition to big bang contemporary names such as Gucci, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and Stella McCartney (weighing in with an ugly affair), the older bags and styles are impressive and often leave you shaking your head in wonderment.

In the centuries before clothing had pockets, bags and purses were necessary to carry money, Bibles, alms and holy relics. And so we see old leather and cloth pouches which would hang from a belt or girdle, and a silk embroidered purse from Scotland around 1745 which belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The embroidery on the 17th and 18th century items is impossibly delicate, there are fragile limoges boxes and chatelaines (decorative carrying chains which went out of fashion in the 20th century and were replaced by handbags), letter cases (one unfolding like complex origami) and colourfully beaded beaded bags with exotic Chinese scenes.

There is an unfinished beaded bag from the Netherlands made by using with five needles simultaneously, a tobacco pouch from the early 19th century with a scenes from Robinson Crusoe and bags of fine lace.

The embarrassing truth however is my wife and I were seduced by the most politically incorrect items in the collection: the beautifully crafted bags of tortoiseshell and ivory.

A 19th century spectacle case of steel, mother of pearl, snakeskin, tortoise shell and engraved ivory had us gasping with admiration. This was something to display rather than use, a real objet d’art.

Equally so, the gorgeous, geometric art deco designs and the bizarre cases or unusual bags in shape of clocks, fish and cars. One bag from the 1980s was also a functioning telephone, and Schiaparelli designed a long travelling bag in the shape of the liner Normandie for its maiden voyage in 1935. It is as stylish as it is extraordinary.

The diverse Ivos collection – more than 4000 bags, cases, pouches and purses, described as “an ode to all the women in this world” by Hendrikje – includes luxurious gifts from Imelda Marcos and Bottega Veneta, the purse Madonna carried to the premier of Evita, and polished wooden school bags to be hung on hooks in hallways.

There are bags of ostrich, horse, zebra and antelope hide, one is an eviscerated armadillo, and others are made from the skin of Nile perch, stingrays and toads. As awful as that sounds – yes, it is awful and wrong – the bags are sinfully beautiful. Many were donated to the museum, although it also has an active acquisition programme.

In a video Heinz says simply, “It began with one bag and…”

A French fashion magazine in the 19th century once wrote, “A woman can leave her husband but never her bag”.

Behind that ordinary door in central Amsterdam, the elegant, must-see Museum of Bags and Purses offers hundreds of must-haves – many probably much more attractive to have on the arm than a husband.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates up to two flights a day from Auckland to London, and a daily flight from Auckland to Amsterdam, (all via Hong Kong).

Out of the bag: The Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, Museum of Bags and Purses is at Herengracht 573, Amsterdam.

By Graham Reid
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