Bags – Icons & investments
History of a timeless accessory
19 October 2019 – 5 April 2020
This popular women’s accessory can be big or small, soft or hard, carried by a handle or slung over the shoulder on a strap. Adorned with splendid gold chains or simple and elegant – the handbag.
Bags have not always been cult objects for women only. In earlier times, both men and women carried pouches and bags. It was customary and practical to wear bags on belts or even as pouches slung around the waist under outer garments.
During the course of fashion history, the unisex bag gradually transformed into the handbag exclusively for female use. When close-fitting chemise dresses made of gauzy muslin came out, there was no choice other than to carry the pouch in the hand or on the arm.
It was not until 1875 that a handbag with a handle was introduced. Women quickly got used to always carrying a bag with a handle.
It was in the 20th century that handbags experienced their great boom. Bags such as the so-called Kelly Bag became absolute cult objects and icons. Some of the greatest and most influential bag designers, including Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci and Prada, started in the saddler business and originally produced luxury travel luggage.
The fact that the handbag became known as a symbol of femininity and an object of female desire had a lot to do with fashion staging.
Throughout history, one thing has remained the same: the handbag is a very personal object. It is a container that we use to keep and carry items that belong to us.
This exhibition with around 400 items provides insight into the history of handbags beginning from 1550, when they were made of fabric, tapestry, pearls and leather. The journey ends with exclusive and offbeat catwalk bags by contemporary designers and artists, including pieces from the hip Úna Burke, playful objects by Stasha Chimbur and luxurious bags by Ming Ray of London. The exhibition is rounded off with handbag art objects, such as the work made from alabaster by Barbara Ségal or that of Dutch conceptual artist Ted Noten, both unique pieces.
In cooperation with Liza Snook from the Virtual Shoe Museum in The Hague, works by over 40 renowned designers and artists from 14 countries can be seen in Basel, as well as loans from private collectors, galleries and two museums from the Netherlands. Among them some exquisite bags from the Tassenmuseum Amsterdam.
In short, this exhibition is heaven on earth for handbag lovers and can only be seen in Basel.
The early history of an accessory
Women have always been collectors, so it’s easy to imagine that even a Neanderthal woman
was faced with the question: how am I supposed to carry all these berries to the cave? Thus,
for the first time, a bag was needed.
The first bags made were most likely made from skins tied to a stick to carry food or flint
stones. Over time, straps developed for wearing bags around the hips. This had the advantage
of leaving the hands free. This form of belt bag was worn by the inhabitants of ancient Rome
and those who came after up to the Crusades, both men and women. In the 13th century,
bags were equipped with metal racks to enlarge them and give them more stability. This
construction was common until the 15th century, and only the belt embellishments and
content of a bag could distinguish whether it belonged to a man or a woman.
During the 15th century, more delicate bags in the form of the alms bag appeared for the first
time. These signified wealth and prosperity. Often they were decorated with pearls and cords
and were attached to a chain on the belt. Meanwhile, big, sturdy bags indicated hard work and
were mainly used by farmers.
Bag-shaped pockets appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries, but were less commonly used.
More widespread were one or two bags hidden under a wide skirt that could be reached
through a slit in the garment. These kinds of bags – also sewn to the petticoat – were very
common for a long time and can still be found today in traditional costumes.
Men wore pockets more and more often, so they no longer needed bags. Thus, women as bag
carriers ultimately prevailed against the men.
The bag comes to hand
Much can be deduced about the time, materials and shapes used, the fashion as well as past
customs and habits by looking at a bag. Bags testify to the progress of emancipation, art
history movements, changes in decorative styles, as well as economic and technical
developments. From the practical briefcase to the stylish backpack, from the reticule to the
shoulder bag: each model was a situation report on everyday life.
By the end of the 18th century, women’s dresses became more delicate: the Empire style
emerged, eliminating the possibility of carrying a bag under one’s clothing. The reticule made
its way to the lady’s wrist. This evolution of the cloth bag was finely decorated and equipped
with a loop or a handle, to be carried in the hand. In the early years, the reticule was treated
very ungraciously by the press, but by 1805, when women were wearing a bodice as
outerwear, the reticule had become an established accessory without which a woman would
not go out on the street. The small pouch was used by ladies of higher society from the late
18th century to hold small objects that they wanted to have with them always, such as a
handkerchief, smelling salts, powder or the like. The shape initially remained the same, but
soon artistic variations appeared, for example, in the form of a knitted pineapple or artistically
embroidered bags. Some interesting examples of this era can be seen in the exhibition.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the pouch also appeared in the literature as a
Pompadour. Although it seems to be named after Madame de Pompadour, it is very unlikely
that the famous mistress of Louis XV ever used such an accessory, except in its original form
as a craft bag. During the lifetime of Madame de Pompadour, as mentioned above, everyday
necessities were worn in pockets under the skirt. All Pompadours have in common the bag
shape and closure by drawstring at the top, which also serves as a suspension from the wrist.
The Pompadour is still worn today for evening and bridal wear, thus anytime when having
pockets incorporated in the dress is not desired. In 1846, the metal frame was invented, so
that the handbag differed significantly from its bag-shaped predecessors and gained greater
practical and fashion importance. Some examples of this change can be seen in the exhibition.
When hard-shell bags with carrying handles that could be taken away on trips were needed,
the first handbags made of leather came to be. They looked more like small suitcases and had
a snap closure for the first time.
In the middle of the 19th century, wealthy people began to travel more, often thanks to the
expansion of railways. For this they needed luggage. Since this had to be robust, leather bags
were first produced. They were usually equipped with locks and let the contents of the ladies’
bag become an even greater mystery for men. Towards the end of the century, more
emphasis was placed on the ornamentation of the bags, for example, by beads or metal links.
Brand protection also gradually became an issue. At Louis Vuitton in 1896, the logo was
painted by hand on the suitcases to avoid imitations. After all, the travel bags had an excellent
reputation that had to be defended.
Handbags and the 20th century
The evolution of the handbag in the 20th century reflects the evolution of fashion as a whole.
The changes in the role of women in society redefined the function, size and shape of the
handbag. It developed from a small pouch with a drawstring, which had no real use besides a
merely decorative purpose, to a hard-shell carrying bag for the independent woman that held
keys, make-up and other items of modern lifestyle.
After the First World War, leather was scarce and expensive, so even well-known fashion
houses turned to cotton fabrics. At the same time, the proportion of synthetic materials used
increased sharply in the 1920s. The zipper, adopted from the transport bags of the Canadian
army, became socially acceptable in 1923. A fashion high point was reached with the
minimally designed envelope bags (Pochettes), which had a cover flap like their 18th- and
19th-century predecessors. Also fashionable were the well-known bags whose shape was
determined by a frame. There were also exotic-looking dance bags as well as metal links made
of mesh pockets, some decorated with fringes below. Handbags made of metal links have
been around since the early 18th century. However, they remained extremely rare because of
the laborious manual work. Only after the introduction of the first machine for producing metal
mesh fabrics in 1908 did they become affordable for the general public.
Men, who until then had often stashed their wives’ belongings in their jacket and trouser
pockets, were released from this task in 1938 at the latest, when Elsa Schiaparelli brought the
lantern bag onto the market. It had enough space for cigarettes, make-up, money and keys,
and even had electric light. This was another important step towards the emancipation of
The 1920s shaped handbag fashion with elaborate straps and unmistakable ornaments in Art
Nouveau and Art Deco styles.
During the 1930s, bag design gradually changed, and the geometric shapes and patterns of
the art décor gave way to more playful and in some cases gorgeous as well as artistically highquality design. These included, for example, silk appliqués as well as elaborate velvet and
chenille embroidery. Even closures and straps became more and more elaborate and exotic.
Due to the declining purchasing power of the population, manufacturers then resorted more
frequently to plastics such as celluloid or Bakelite. Underarm bags were still among the
preferred models; evening bags with antique motifs in muted shades were the latest craze. By
the end of the 1930s, handbags became larger and straps longer.
During the Second World War, handbags were unaffordable luxury goods. The militaryinfluenced fashion of tight skirts, waisted jackets and shoulder-length hair matched the
spacious shoulder bag. It even provided space for a gas mask or food stamps. Magazines
encouraged women to make their own bags from scraps of fabric. In the post-war years,
women yearned for relief from restrictions and frugality. However, many goods were rationed.
Both leather and metal were hard to come by. It was not until the late 1940s that fashion
began to recover from the effects of war. The French designer Christian Dior gave the starting
signal for a new era in 1947 with his New Look. Only the slim, small handbag suited his
extravagantly long skirts, tight-fitting tops, high heels and ladylike hats. Until the 1950s,
handbags remained expensive luxury items. Soon however, cheap, mass-produced models
flooded the market. These were inexpensive, washable plastic handbags. Still, bags made of
crocodile leather were back in the luxury segment.
From the 1950s, modern materials such as nylon, waterproof PVC and synthetic leather came
from the US. Hard plastic was used for handles and closures. But combinations of plastic and
metal, printed or coated paper, and synthetic materials of all kinds were also common. The
new fashion trends of miniskirts and pantsuits also demanded a new style in pocket fashion.
Small, compact bags that dangled on long shoulder straps became the hands-down bestseller.
The handbags in this decade were usually angular in shape. In addition to handbags with a
wide bottom and upward tapered frame, all sorts of box and box-shaped containers with
handles, straps or bows became the fashion. Another answer to the leather shortage was
spacious, woven straw and bamboo baskets from sun-blessed Italy, which caused a furor in
America. Handbags for elegant ladies again became smaller and daintier; Pompadours with a
wrist loop and shaped to be carried under the arm were in vogue for evening wear.
At the end of the 1970s, nostalgia and playful romance were all the rage. In addition, the folk
and country look came into fashion. School bags, fishing bags and sturdy shoulder bags with
metal trim were also part of an outfit in big cities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, besides manufacturers, more and more major fashion houses and
designers began to design their own bag collections with iconic status. Yves Saint Laurent,
Gianni Versace, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Hermès, Fendi and Miu Miu are household names
to every handbag-loving woman. Despite the joy of innovation, some older models maintained
their classic status. The variety of shape of handbags knew no bounds – from big and edgy to
small and playful. The fashion of the 20th century offered the right handbag for every taste
and style. An unprecedented abundance made buying a bag a very special event. Hardly any
woman today is satisfied with just one handbag.
Of course, the changes in women’s lives in recent decades have also made new demands on
their bags. New materials such as nylon fiber and waterproof leather as well as ingenious
fasteners for handles, straps and closures enable bags to hold up to daily rough handling.
Also, the contents of the bag have changed radically. Now women carry mobile phones,
tablets and laptops with them, which in turn has an impact on design.
The handbag as a cultural object
In the 19th century, the handbag was established as a status symbol, a development that
reached its peak in the 20th century. From the 1950s, every decade had a cult bag. This
started with the Haut à Courroies by Hermès, known since 1956 as the Kelly Bag. In the
1960s, metal-sequined shoulder bags by Paco Rabanne gained cult status. In the 1970s, this
rank was given to the handbags of Gucci and Fendi, with eye-catching company logos and
monograms. In the 1980s, functional Prada backpacks and sophisticated Chanel bags gained a
share of cult status. In contrast to past centuries, when handbag fashion developed much
more slowly and you could wear the same model for years, today the bag has become a
fashion accessory that changes from season to season, and for which fashion brands still set
the tone. Since the 1990s, bags, shoes, perfume and sunglasses have been a major source of
income for fashion houses and an important tool in strengthening their brands. These
accessories are also affordable for a wider audience. By the second half of the 1990s, every
year had its cult bag. In 1996, it was Kate Spade’s multipurpose bag; in 1998, one could not
miss Fendi’s Baguette; and in 1999, the Prada Bowling Bag was a must-have. Louis Vuitton’s
Etui Graffiti was the cult bag of 2000. And in 2001, the Birkin Bag by Hermès and the Trailer
by John Galliano for Dior battled for this title.
The darling of women, now fashioned by designers
Since the 21st century, creativity seems to be unlimited. More and more unusual designs and
extravagant materials are being used for new handbag creations. Several of these hip
designer bags from over 60 artists from 19 countries are on display in the exhibition.
Today, a wide selection of handbags is taken for granted. Colors, shapes and materials make
it possible not only to invent your own style with a handbag, but also to emphasize your
personality. The right handbag can be found for every mood and occasion.
Despite all the historical changes, one thing remained the same: the bag is a highly personal
object for both sexes. It is the container in which we store and carry what belongs to us. What
the future holds is unforeseeable. Fashion is constantly changing and nothing is impossible.
Maybe even gentlemen will take up the embroidered handbag.
The handbag as a work of art
The bag has long since arrived in the art world. There are always collaborations between
major fashion houses and well-known artists, such as the US artist Jeff Koons and Louis
Vuitton or between the House Longchamp and the British artist Sarah Morris. This exhibition
also displays bags that can be seen as pure works of art. These are certainly the white
alabaster Chanel bag by Barbara Ségal and the work of Dutch conceptual artist Ted Noten in
Grandma’s Bag Revisited from 2009. This acrylic bag is highly functional and comes from Louis
Vuitton. Both works are unique pieces. The works of the artists can be found in museums and
well-known galleries all over the world.
Ultimate and timeless It bags
Every season, each fashion house hopes to present the It bag: the ultimate bag worn by a
famous movie star, pop star or model that every woman has to have. Some bags are classics
like the coveted Kelly Bag or Birkin Bag, both from Hermès, or the Lady Dior Bag from fashion
The Kelly Bag owes its name and increased popularity to the fact that Grace Kelly, the famous
Hollywood star and later Princess of Monaco, was seen carrying it again and again. She wore
the bag on the day of her engagement to Prince Rainier in 1955. The Kelly Bag is still
produced in numerous variants. It is considered one of the most famous women’s handbag
models and suggests nobility and restrained good taste. The Birkin Bag is a handcrafted
handbag from the luxury fashion brand Hermès, named after the actress Jane Birkin. These
two handbag models are not only often copied and frequently forged classics of design, but
due to the high price and small number of manufactured copies, they are also status symbols.
Unlike an It bag, which goes out of style after a short time, Birkin Bags and Kelly Bags are still
in demand more than 25 years later and achieve high resale revenues. These models are
already considered a value investment.
The Chanel 2.55 was produced by the fashion house Chanel beginning in 1955 and still exists
in a modified form. Coco Chanel is said to have been imagining a practical shoulder bag with
straps since the 1920s. The 2.55 did not come on the market until February of 1955, however,
and was only named after its release date. Until then, elegant women’s handbags were usually
equipped with a short handle and were carried by hand or on the forearm. Bags with shoulder
straps, on the other hand, were used for more vulgar purposes and were mostly worn by men,
such as soldiers. A lady’s handbag with a shoulder strap meant that the modern wearer had
her hands free and was never in danger of losing her bag because she did not have to set it
down and pick it back up all the time. When the 2.55 was introduced in 1955, it was
considered a sensation. While the original design aimed at functionality, the Chanel 2.55 has
become the epitome of a luxury item that is not bought for its practicality, but is designed to
decorate the wearer as an expensive accessory. In the exhibition you can see some examples
of these three iconic bags in different designs.
Shapes, materials or purpose as a namesake
There are bags of leather, metal, linen, velvet and silk, sometimes elaborately decorated with
gold and silver threads, beads, appliqués and ribbons. Sometimes the material is also the
namesake, as with the acetate bag, the leather bag, or the felt or the straw bag. The shape or
appearance can also be the name of the bag, as is the case of the trapeze bag, the retro bag,
the handle bag and the bucket bag. However, bags can also be named after their intended
use, such as the shopping bag, the backpack, the evening bag, the shoulder bag or the trendy
belt bag. Luxury labels have now discovered the backpack for themselves. The exhibition lends
insight into the incredible diversity of the handbag world.
The lenders of the special exhibition
This unique special exhibition on the cultural history of the bag was only possible with loans
from private individuals in the region, including Mrs. Daniela Spillmann, as well as
organizations and museums from England and the Netherlands. Besides the museum’s own
collection, more than 300 bags from 1550 to the present day can be seen. Here is some
information about the participating museums.
Hampshire Cultural Trust, England
Hampshire Cultural Trust, Hampshire County Council collections encompasses more than 2.5
million historical objects, from working steam engines to fragile old artifacts. The collections
tell the stories of people who have lived in Hampshire for thousands of years up to the present
Researchers have the collections at their disposal to gain new insights. The Hampshire Cultural
Trust has loaned 56 items exhibits from 1800 to 1910 for this special exhibition.
The Museum of Bags and Purses Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Tassenmuseum
It all started with a single purse. This turned Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo into passionate
collectors and soon also connoisseurs of handbags. Over the years, a private collection of such
exceptional quality emerged that they wanted to share it with the rest of the world. This was
the beginning of the Museum of Bags and Purses.
The world’s largest handbag museum has been housed in a 17th-century house on the
Herengracht in Amsterdam since 2007 and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Canal Ring
area of Amsterdam.
The museum houses an impressive collection of over 5000 bags. Each one tells its own story
about fashion, design, craftsmanship and techniques from the 16th to the 21st century.
Nowhere else are so many wonderful, precious, playful and surprising bags gathered in one
For this special exhibition the Tassenmuseum Amsterdam has provided 27 bags from its
unique collection from the period 1550 to 2011.
The Dutch Leather and Shoe Museum, the Netherlands
The initiator of this museum was Antoon Hendriks, a shoemaker teacher at the Upper School
of the Shoe and Leather Industry and passionate collector of numerous items related to shoes
and footwear. He showed part of his collection during the 1953 SLEM exhibition of shoes and
leather and inspired a number of shoemakers to create a foundation. In 1954, the
Archaeological Museum for the Footwear and Leather Industry was opened in a cramped
building, and in 1960 the company moved to the former home of the leather manufacturer
Witlox at Grotestraat 148. This building was also proved too small, and in 1983 the museum
moved into the building of the former shoe manufacturer Pinocchio. At this time, it also
acquired its present name. The collection was further expanded, including a number of large
machines. At the moment the building is closed and should be reopened after a complete
reorganization and restructuring in 2021.
Children’s booklet, workshop and competition
Our young visitors have the opportunity to explore the exhibition with our small, sweet Tascha
and a booklet. The pink bag friend asks questions about bags, their artists and history. Don’t
worry, the solutions require no wizardry – just attentiveness, a little patience and maybe also
the help of an adult.
In our workshops, as part of the special exhibition, adults and children from the age of six can
design their own bag. Who owns a bag nobody else has? Probably only a few. But that can
change very quickly. Just come by and join in. Various materials such as buttons, butterflies,
flowers and pompons, and a small, natural-colored, stylish straw bag are provided free of
charge. Registration is not necessary.
In our competition we are looking for the most unusual, adventurous or extravagant bag
creations according to the motto of the special exhibition Bags – Icons & investments. The
bags to be submitted for the competition will be handed out free of charge at Spielzeug Welten
Museum Basel (Toy Worlds Museum Basle) from 19 October 2019. So unpack your ideas. All
the bags will be on display in our shop windows for judging in January 2020.
the world of the Museum
A mecca for gift hunters and collectors
The Boutique at the Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel (Toy Worlds Museum Basle) offers everything that hearts young and old could desire. Here you will find a variety of gifts to satisfy every want, large or small. There are lucky finds for collectors and a range of unique and joy-bringing gifts.
Ristorante La Sosta
The Ristorante La Sosta in the Spielzeug Welten Museum Basel (Toy Worlds Museum Basle) is open daily to sate appetites great and small – with warm meals served all day. Seasonal and fresh menus, light snacks, fine sweets, enticing desserts, and cool drinks will transform every visit and break into an enjoyable experience. Outside or inside.