Despite being named as one of the world’s top ten fashion museums, for some reason Amsterdam’s wonderful Museum of Bags and Purses still appears to be off the radar for many visitors to the city. Housed in a magnificent 17th Century canal house the museum has over 5000 bags dating from the 16th century to the present day. A stunning array of bags, pouches, suitcases and purses offers a fascinating insight into the development of an accessory that no woman today would be without.
Perhaps the first major revelation is that originally bags were primarily for men. Until someone came up with the idea of inside pockets they were needed to carry everyday objects such as money, documents, letters and relics. Indeed the oldest bag in the collection is a 16th century men’s goatskin example containing 18 compartments, most with a secret lock. Those bags that women did own they wore attached to a girdle or chatelaine , a hook with long chains.
It was only with the invention of pockets at the end of the 16th century that men’s bags began to slowly disappear. Women too had their own form of pockets, attached to the waist by strings and hidden under the voluminous skirts of the period. This didn’t prevent their use of bags, however, and the 17th century saw an expansion in their range and use; alms purse, bridal purse and even gamester’s purses, these latter examples remaining firmly in the realm of men. Often richly embellished with beads or embroidered in gold or silver thread, the finer examples, of which the museum has many, are objects of exquisite beauty.
Silver clasp bags, worn attached to the waist of a skirt or girdle, were a particularly lovely development of the 18th century. Elaborately moulded and decorated with a huge variety of designs they were handed down from generation to generation to be modernised according to the fashion of the day with velvet, damask, silk, leather or beads. The clasps alone make for a beautiful display.
It wasn’t until the rise in popularity of the Empire line towards the tail end of the 18th century, which made fixing anything beneath or around the waist aesthetically unappealing, that the reticule, the first true ‘hand’ bag, made its appearance. Clearly women warmed to the style for when wider skirts made a reapperance in 1825 the reticule remained.
New materials such as papier maché, iron and polished steel allowed for a rich array of new models and designs, examples of which are all on display.
The rise of women’s emancipation in the 20th century and the resulting increase in employment opportunities and mobility that followed saw the need, or at least the desire, for a bag for every occasion – daytime, evening, office and travel. The museum has everything from 1920s clutches to a jewel like collection of 1950s plastic day bags. The rise of the designer bag is also covered with icons such as the Hermes Birkin and Chanel 2.55 given their rightful place.
In addition to the permanent collection the museum has regular temporary exhibitions featuring highlights from the collection, loans from other museums and private collections and new work by contemporary and international designers.
The museum also has a delightful café with sofas and chairs upholstered in Deco inspired fabrics by the British textile designer Neisha Crosland. Here you can partake of the Fashion High Tea which includes an edible Chanel 2.55 in the form of a marzipan covered vanilla cake.
Should you wish to have a more tangible souvenir of your visit, then head for the shop where you can pick up something from a wide range of exclusive bags, purses and accessories by Dutch and International designers. The perfect finale to a bag lover’s dream.
The Museum of Bags and Purses, Herengracht 573, 1017 Amsterdam, Tel: 00 31 20 524 6452. Open daily 10am-5pm (check with Museum for exceptions).