In conversation with: curator Lucia Savi (V&A)

19 mei 2021
Onderzoeker en redacteur Modemuze

'Bags: Inside Out', currently on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is the UK's most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the ultimate accessory.

With an exclusive look inside the world of the factory and atelier, this exhibition explores the longstanding fascination with the bag, from the designer to the despatch box. Lotte Schwillens and Catherine Buckland sit down with the exhibition’s curator Lucia Savi to talk about all things handbag. Zie Nederlandse samenvatting onderaan het blog.

First of all, the most important question is, of course, what makes handbags so fascinating?

Building on previous V&A exhibitions dedicated to fashion accessories ('Shoes: Pleasure and Pain' (2016) and 'Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones' (2009)) 'Bags: Inside Out' reveals the extraordinary range of the V&A’s collection. Bags are important as an insight into the lives of men and women through the objects they have carried with them, both day-to-day and during important moments of their private and professional lives.

Bags are both a private possession and a public statement: throughout history and across cultures they have occupied a very special space that is both on display and very discrete. Their allure is multi-layered: they carry many different objects and are functional objects, but they also have many different meanings, from one place to another and can project to the world who we are.

More specifically, handbags have not been the subject of many exhibitions (and the only European museum dedicated to handbags, Tassenmuseum Amsterdam sadly had to close due to CoVid). How did you decide upon this topic?

Both in museums and academia, bags have not been the focus of many specific investigations and exhibitions and I wanted to give them the attention they deserved. I developed the story by researching both historic and contemporary bags from the V&A collection and private collectors, archives and museums.

I also met with designers and visited factories to find out how bags are made today. This research established the important themes, and allowed me to develop an in-depth investigation of bags’ significance, function, symbolic meaning, design and making, which has not been done before.

There may not be many handbag exhibitions, but there certainly aren’t a great deal of handbag academics out there. Given the lack of written texts, how did you conduct your research for this exhibition?

When I started working on this exhibition the first thing I did was to assess the V&A’s permanent collection. One of the most fascinating aspects of this early research was to see the bags one by one in storage and to open them and inspect both their inside and outside. To my surprise a number of bags still contained some of their owner's personal possessions: make up, theatre tickets, coins, combs, notes and letters were amongst some of the surprises I found inside handbags, vanity cases, pouches and purses. A part of researching and reading the available books and articles on historical and contemporary bags, I let the object-based research of the rich V&A collection guide me and inspire me.

The V&A has an enormous collection, and the number of notable handbags out there is also high. How did you manage to choose the right bags? And how did you choose to structure the exhibition?

The exhibition features 278 objects which includes bags, sketches, paper patterns and prototypes. These pieces tell an engaging narrative based on the dual nature of bags. I use the word bags because the exhibition includes a range of objects from vanity cases to pouches, purses, luggage and even trunks.

The exhibition includes bags from all over the world from the 16th century to today and is arranged in three sections: 'Function and Utility', 'Status and Identity' and 'Design and Making'. In each section, we go beyond the realm of handbags and expand into bags. The first two sections of the exhibition investigate bags’ various functions throughout history, and their role as vehicles of status and identity. The third section explores the complex and fascinating process of the design and making of bags.

The history of the bag is long, and there are few centralised collections from which to pick pieces. Were there any particular difficulties in finding the 'perfect' object?

The exhibition is ambitious in terms of chronology and in geography. The most challenging and also the most exciting and rewarding aspect of this project has been to select the final objects list. Objects on display include V&A historical pieces, as well as new contemporary acquisitions and unique objects on loan from international museums and private collections.

And to conclude, the name of the exhibition. How did you choose the title Bags: Inside Out?

‘Inside Out’ is a shortcut to refer to the private inside of the bag versus the public ‘face’ of its surface. Bags are both a private possession and a public statement: throughout history and across cultures they have occupied a very special space that is both on display and very discrete.

‘Inside Out’ also refers to the dual nature of bags that are functional objects and at the same time have symbolic meanings. Their allure is multi-layered: they carry many different objects and are functional objects, but they also have many different meanings, from one place to another and can project to the world who we are.

Finally ‘Inside Out’ also alludes to the process of design and making that we normally don’t see when we look at the final piece. Bags are a very important part of today’s fashion economy and the ‘face’ of many international fashion brands, but their story is not being told.

‘Bags: Inside Out’ is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until Sunday 16th January 2022.

Nederlandse vertaling:

Bags: Inside Out, momenteel te zien in het Victoria and Albert Museum in Londen, is de meest uitgebreide Britse tentoonstelling over het ultieme accessoire. Catherine Buckland en Lotte Schwillens praten met curator Lucia Savi over de totstandkoming van de tentoonstelling en wat tassen volgens haar nou precies zo fascinerend maakt.

Om met het laatste te beginnen, waarin ligt die fascinatie voor tassen? Volgens Lucia Savi bieden tassen inzicht in de levens van mannen en vrouwen door de spullen die zij met zich meedragen. De aantrekkingskracht van de tas is gelaagd. Het is een functioneel voorwerp, maar het kan tegelijkertijd verschillende betekenissen hebben. Het uiterlijk van de tas geeft een boodschap aan de omgeving en zegt iets over de drager. Terwijl het binnenste verborgen blijft en privédomein is. Dat is ook waar de titel ‘Inside Out’ naar verwijst: het private versus het publieke.

Daarnaast zinspeelt 'Inside Out' ook op het proces van ontwerpen en maken dat we normaal gesproken niet zien als we naar het uiteindelijke product kijken. Tassen zijn een zeer belangrijk onderdeel van de huidige mode-economie en het “gezicht” van veel modemerken, maar hun verhaal wordt niet verteld. Ook in de academische wereld zijn tassen een onderbelicht onderwerp. Reden voor Lucia Savi om ze met deze tentoonstelling de aandacht te geven die ze verdienen.

Het beperkte aantal bronnen en de chronologische en geografische omvang maakt het meteen een ambitieus project. De tentoonstelling omvat zo’n 300 objecten uit de hele wereld, daterend van de 16e eeuw tot vandaag. Hiervoor onderzocht ze tassen uit de V&A-collectie, waar ze tot haar verbazing nog persoonlijke bezittingen van de voormalige eigenaren in vond. En sprak ze met ontwerpers en bezocht ze fabrieken om te zien hoe tassen vandaag de dag worden gemaakt.

De tentoonstelling onderzoekt de verschillende functies van tassen door de eeuwen heen, hun rol als drager van status en identiteit, en verkent het complexe en fascinerende ontwerp- en productieproces.

'Bags: Inside Out' is tot en met zondag 16 januari 2022 te zien in het Victoria and Albert Museum in Londen.

Text by: Lotte Schwillens and Catherine Buckland
Images: Victoria & Albert Museum



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