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Kalpana Sunder | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 16, 2017
Collector’s edition: Inside the Museum of Bags and Purses

Collector’s edition: Inside the Museum of Bags and Purses

First impressions: Wooden schoolbag with hand-painted image, the Netherlands, 19th century

First impressions: Wooden schoolbag with hand-painted image, the Netherlands, 19th century

Purse pre-cursor: Satin reticule embroidered with silk, England 1850s

Purse pre-cursor: Satin reticule embroidered with silk, England 1850s

Tech satchel: Patent leather handbag with functioning telephone, Dallas Handbags, USA, 1980s

Tech satchel: Patent leather handbag with functioning telephone, Dallas Handbags, USA, 1980s

Hendrikje Ivo’s Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam chronicles the history of this timeless accesory

If you thought a handbag is but a functional, everyday article or a mere fashion accessory, think again. It’s a silent witness that can reflect years of history, the fashions of that time, decorative techniques, technological advancements, art, and cultural development. Hendrikje Ivo, an antique dealer and collector from Amsterdam, once found a tortoise shell bag inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a dusty antique store in the English countryside. This is how the bag collector was born.

The passionate collector

It all started in a small room at Hendrikje’s home. Today Amsterdam’s extraordinary Museum of Bags and Purses is the largest institution in the world of its kind. The museum’s collection includes over 5,000 individual objects from petite pouches, pockets, clutches to suitcases and bags, and houses many bags and purses dating back to the Middle Ages. When the museum outgrew its space, a wealthy benefactor bought this beautiful three-storey canal house with a garden on the Herengracht, and today after careful renovation and design, this museum is one of Amsterdam’s best.

The first bag that I encounter is a gentleman’s bag from the 16th century — it’s the oldest one in the museum made from goatskin, and has 18 secret compartments. It harks back to an era when merchants carried different types of European currency in clothing without pockets. In the centuries before clothes had pockets, bags and purses were necessary to carry money and holy relics.

I see delicate embroidered purses for carrying love letters, and sweet bags that used to be filled with fragrant flowers, worn in an era when washing and toilet facilities were limited, and people tried to disguise their body odour. There are wedding purses that were filled with coins and given as a gift to the bride and groom, purses made of delicate small glass beads threaded on silk.

Sigrid, Hendrikje’s art-historian daughter who is also the museum’s director, shows me her mother’s favourite bag from Amsterdam — a bag made of snake leather with Eve eating the forbidden apple on a plate of cut ivory. I pick up bag trivia; bags and purses used to be made out of different kinds of materials like cactus fibre, glass beads, textile, silver and gold, as well as synthetic material. I love the polished and painted Dutch wooden school bags, to be hung on hooks in hallways.

Posterity in art

Sigrid shows me how history can be reflected in a bag. In 1826, a giraffe named Zarafa was shipped over the Mediterranean to Marseille. The animal was a gift to the French king from the Egyptian government and spent six weeks travelling through France till Paris. Zarafa, accompanied by her exotic attendants, attracted huge crowds along this journey. Many people captured this moment in art — I see a beaded purse with the famous giraffe.

When fashion was inspired by Pompeii and the Greek temples, voluminous dresses went out of style and gowns became straighter with a high waist. This led to the reticule — the precursor of the handbag — a drawstring bag carried in the hand. They say that the French called it ‘ridicule’ because ‘imagine carrying your possessions in your hand’, a preposterous idea for them.

The Industrial Revolution brought in new production and materials — the advent of train travel brought in the need for hand luggage, the origin of the modern-day handbag! I see bags decorated with Japanese and Egyptian scenes, even one exquisitely crafted out of antique postcards, Art Deco bags from the ’20s. I love the underarm bag shaped like a cruise ship that all first-class passengers got when the luxury liner Normandie sailed from Le Havre to New York . With the 20th century, women’s emancipation brought a greater variety of handbags — leather briefcases for work, casual bags for the day and elegant clutch bags for evenings. Obsession with brands also began in the 20th century. In the special section devoted to designer bags I see the evening bag that Madonna sported at the premiere of Evita in London in leaf green, with matching Versace dress and shoes.

Help from the fraternity

The museum acquires bags through purchases, donations and monetary contributions from benefactors. Often, people donate their favourite bags to the museum. “Last year we bought Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher’s bag for €23,000,” she says pointing to a grey bag. I finish my visit with a coffee and cake at their café overlooking the garden, a fitting finale to this sensory feast.

K alpana Sunder is a Chennai-based travel writer

Published on February 16, 2017
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