Friday, February 09, 2007

After word: ‘It’s In the Bag: Purses from the Permanent Collection’ from the Museum of the City of New York

#2. Vanity case, 1914 – 16
Gift of Judith Leiber, 80.138.4,

Silver plated openwork hinged oval frame, inset with black oval plaques, each encircled by row of marcasite with central metal and marcasite appliqué; silver embossed and marcasite-set drop with braided chain tassel; filigree link and bead chain

#3. Lady’s purse, ca. 1820
Gift of Miss Mary T. Cockcroft, 31.102.7.b,

Multi-colored worsted needlepoint pouch bag with ornamental cut-steel beads; drawstring handle; gathered at bottom with silver tassel

#4. Reticule, 1800-1820
Gift of Mary Hall Sayre, 36.65.3,

Drawn steel wire cording and mesh, silk lined

A show on ladies purses from the last three centuries is a really exciting and very ‘of the moment’ exhibition for the fashion/conscious and savvy gal, who is not only interested in a beautiful design and a brand-name, but wants to explore more and learn how this magnificent accessory has been a prized possession for so many years.

Fascinated with the exhibition and the beautiful purses on display, I asked the curator Phyllis Magidson to talk to me about this exciting accessory, explain why the bags on view are so important, and what we learn by studying them.

A walk though by the curator of an exhibition is a treat in itself; Phyllis Magidson helped me see the exhibition with a very different eye. Not only was I blown away with the beauty and craftsmanship of those portable treasures, but I also learnt historical and sociological facts depicted by their style and design. We traveled through time; it was a magical trip made up of stitches, crocheting, gilt-trimmed velvets, beautiful leathers, sparkly beads and precious stones. I felt a little bit like Cinderella, dressing for a ball in the 1870's & tucking my handkerchief in my silk reticule, strolling the lime stoned streets of Paris in the 1920's in my ‘power suit’ with my fabulous alligator clutch under my arm, walking down 34th street to buy a new silver-trimmed pocket book from Tiffany & Co. in the 40's, or dancing in the 70's, as a Studio 54 true queen, toting my sparkly beaded bag and bedazzling the crowds.

The exhibition is divided into sections of time, but most importantly style and design of bags. That way we can view a pouch bag that was crafted in the 1870s and compare it with one that was designed in the 1970's:
- Pouch Bags
- Reticule-Miniature purses
- Clutches
- Black Bags
- Beaded Bags
- Pocket books
- Evening Bags
- Purses

I am happy to share with you the magnificent journey in the handbag world with Phyllis Magidson. I asked her very few questions and let her talk to me about the exhibits in the way she wanted. Time flew so fast. Enjoy:

- PM: “This exhibition is based on one of the strengths of the Museum’s Permanent Collection, handbags. which is a collection that came to them through donations mainly, through New Yorkers, whose families have lived in the City from early points in History through Contemporary times. Since NYC has been a center of trade, we have had a very broad range and materials and a lot of money. People from early on have been into conspicuous consumption. Clothing and accessories have been pivotal in the way people perceived other people and handbags are a microcosm of life in NYC. They also tell a tremendous story of women and their position in society.”

PM: “The pouch is a form that existed in pre-history. It can be made from skins to cloths and it intended to transport something from gunshots to gold, anything you need to carry. Women who were of an upper class were not expected to leave their houses for a tremendous amount of time so they would take with them a scent bottle and another bag with needlework. It was expected for them to be doing something with a needle at all times. The knitting bags / the needlework bags would carry all that stuff. Little crazes in society show up in handbags. i.e. an innovation, a precious metal, a color, a window that you can peek in and see society at a particular period. It is made to hold your belongings loosely, no specific shape exists.”

She is showing me an example of a pouch made of a recycled Fortuni tea gown.

PM: “Mariano Fortuny was a Venetian designer who came up with a very exclusive technique for stenciling patterns on silk velvet. The material was very costly and if something happened to it, you would want to salvage the fabric in some way. This one became a pouch with a frame. There are also a couple of items that came to NY from grand tours including a Chinese needlework bag with a phoenix, embroidered in China, and a needle pointer brought back from Paris either a complete purchase of made from a kit.”

We are now looking over the reticule display.

PM: “The reticule was a bag that was suspended from the wrist, and in the 19th century it is part of your attire, it could be a little keepsake, a conversation piece and we have a vast selection from teeny tiny reticules which were suspended by rings and a mad-money little pouch with white gold and diamonds, (holding a single gold coin). Some reticules were purchased abroad and were brought back as souvenirs; that reminded the recipient that his/her friend was able to go abroad and he/she couldn’t. There is beadwork, examples of motifs that were probably taken from companion magazines, embroidered beadwork, beadwork done on a frame, an example with native-American motifs bought probably from a vendor at Niagara Falls, and custom-made reticules. Up to the 19th century the same people who did jewelry and metalwork, would also make bags. But they were also craftsmen that specialized in bags, parasols, etc.”

Moving along the clutch bag display…

PM: Clutch bags were invented in the 20s. They are the deco interpretation of the handbag, they are very sleek, trim and they echo the overriding aesthetic of garments at the time, where everything was very linear. There is surface embellishment but the basic shapes are very clean and very modern. A pouch is very chic; it is quick, clean and very modern in feeling. There is one example, in its original Cartier presentation box, which has a jewel on it with gold and diamonds, whereas another bag is a Lalique bead. A non-traditional bag in the group: a long large John Frederique’s bag which is high late deco, which is rolled up and popped under your arm as a baguette.”

The black bag display is wonderful; bags from the 1870's up to the 1970's, in all shapes, designs and sizes.

PM: “Everyone needs a black bag and this display has examples from the 1870's, starting with the Chatelaine bag, which was suspended from the waist of the wearer. We also included an Elsa Schiaparelli triptych bag, black suede with a mirror – this is a vanity bag. Here’s a Chanel coule de sac, which has become the single classic signature bag instantly recognizable for stylistic elements. The Tiffany bags were marked and had status, but the Chanel form was something that is modern, and it embodies the money that is necessary to purchase it - the status of that. And a wonderful fan shaped bag. Black bags also say something not only about the society, but also about the wearer. You look at a bag and think: ‘I’ve never would have thought that of her’. It is a little secret revelation at times.”

From a distance, one can see a wide selection of beaded bags. I am drawn to it like a bee is drawn to honey.

PM: Beaded bags; a very strong group that takes you from the latter part of the 19th century to the 1950's: you see the difference in techniques, color palette, popular motifs. A number of these bags are in the ‘carpet bag’ category, which was a very popular category in the early 20th century. Some of them are drawstring, and later on they make their way on to frames, which are more practical and it is easier for the user to get in and out a bag that has a frame, as it is less damaging to the beaded embroidery, and it is also easier to get something larger in there without having to fish for it. We have one bag, which is made entirely out of coral, probably from Italy; many Americans between the Wars were couture clients, and they would travel and buy not only clothes, but also shoes and accessories. The materials vary and the frames vary, some of them are 14carat gold, another one with enamel work, and a sapphire on the clasp of the bag, and paperclip gold chain.”

Next is the pocket book collection:

PM: “Tiffany & Co. was the first status purveyor and maker of pocket books. They were on 14th Street and Union Square during the time that all the bags on exhibition were made and sold. Tiffany’s was the cornerstone of the ladies mile, they were a tremendously prestigious store by the 1870's, and they were fabulous metal workers, engaged the best metal workers and metal techniques of the world. You can see motifs cropping up on some of the metalwork. The collection here has some beautiful with heavy silver frames. Many of the frames have motifs that Tiffany’s used for flatware and table service. And then you also have pieces that bow into various movements in the art world, i.e. organic motifs showing up, art-nouveau inspired. Tiffany was also known for its exotic leathers that they were able to acquire. Nobody went to Tiffany’s unless they had money. If you were giving a gift for a wedding or a debutant it would have been from Tiffany. It was a status gift and in effect this is the first status bag.”

Next is the display of the sparkly evening bags.

PM: Evening Bags: As nightlife became increasingly important in NYC from 1890's, women would get dressed up for events, like the opera (the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883) and any event that pulled a lady out of the house would have made it essential for her to have more things with her, and many of these bags are larger and very decorative because now it intended to catch the light of the night time.”

She is showing me some examples of bags decorated with rhinestones, a Minaudiere with a shoulder strap done by Judith Leiber, a silver pouch, a late 19th century bag with beau and feather motifs, some recycled materials, a pinch clap, a bag with an Egyptian sun scarab on its frame, made of coin silver circa 1923, which coincides with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb and Egypt mania was fashionable.

PM: “A fashionable woman that went out a lot would be expected to have a wardrobe of dresses, bags, gloves, hair ornaments, etc.”

The last display is a group of hand-bags.

PM: “The hand-bag was luggage and it looks incredibly modern, down to the scale of a woman. Many bags were bought from catalogues or department stores. The shapes were luggage, but the materials were more feminine, like straw, or lunchbox form, utilitarian antiques, etc.”

As the tour was over, I couldn’t help myself and asked Phyllis what she thinks of the bags today, and how she feels about the craze with designer bags and celebrities. She was a little reluctant to answer, because as a social historian, she is mostly an observer and does not want to formulate opinions, and jump into conclusions quickly. However, she did tell me that she is a little dismayed at the decline of craftsmanship on so many things that were once hand-produced by various skilled artisans (and so are we). Also, she said, that because of this whole phenomenon of iconic celebrity leadership, the handbag has been removed from being an object that makes a statement about the wearer to a mass movement. However, she hopes that there are enough people out there who make personal statements and really like what they purchase no matter what. And… off we went…

IV: “Thank you so much! I know our readers will feel like they were at the exhibition.”
PM: “Thank you and our pleasure. We hope your readers certainly do enjoy it.”


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