I love vintage fashion, and I will be the first to admit that I have way too many items of clothing, but I’ve never been a massive bag person. I mean, I do still have multiple purses, but they tend to be fairly utilitarian bags in different colours rather than anything expensive or weirdly shaped, so a bag-themed exhibition wasn’t a huge draw. However, Bags Inside Out has been at the V&A for what feels like years at this point (I actually think it literally will be years because of the Covid closures – it runs until January 2022, and had to have been there since 2020), and since it is the only fashion themed exhibition they’ve had for ages, I still reckoned I should go see it.
Tickets to Bags are £12, or £6 for Art Pass. The entry procedure at the V&A (in September, when I visited) was a lot less rigmarole than my previous visit in July. Someone basically just asked if we had a ticket and then waved us into the museum. No bag checks or scanning of tickets until we were actually at the exhibition entrance. I have a friend who works at the V&A who told me they’ve been having a lot of trouble with getting people to wear masks, as they can no longer require it, and on my visit, it was probably about fifty/fifty (we’ve had fewer issues where I work because our visitor numbers are minuscule compared to the V&A and they have to ring a doorbell to get inside the building, so we can monitor them more closely). The exhibition was being held in the usual smallish gallery where the fashion themed stuff is, so the downstairs bit was super crowded and we had to queue for a bit to see into some of the cases, which I wasn’t thrilled about.
Maybe it’s because I was rushing a bit to get past the crowded first section, but I only saw a bit of information about how bags eventually evolved from pockets (and what people did before pockets, I do not know. Carried crap in their hands I guess) before the exhibition quickly jumped right into the functionality of bags, and as someone who is generally more interested in history than design, it wasn’t a great sign. However, some of the bags here were quite interesting. The military ones didn’t particularly do anything for me, but I liked some of the gaming purses, and of course Emilie Busbey Grigsby’s fabulous trunk (one of nineteen she would typically take on transatlantic crossings. Oh, to be that rich).
There were also a selection of bags belonging to famous people. I loved Vivien Leigh’s attache case, which apparently went everywhere with her, and Gladstone and Churchill’s bags were also functional and attractive, but Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was about what you’d expect.
Some of the designer bags were ug-lee – I’d honestly rather have something from the wall of totes or one of the “humorous carrier bags,” especially the one advertising “Colon Care Co-op” (not a real place) – but I was relieved that unlike that awful shoe exhibition at the Design Museum, only a small portion of these bags were actually proper high fashion designer stuff, with the remainder being far more functional.
I preferred the upstairs section of the exhibition, which was much more spread out so we could look at things properly. It didn’t hurt that the first case I set eyes on was full of animal bags. How cute is that frog shaped sweet bag? When I first saw it, all I could think was that the bag certainly wouldn’t be able to hold enough sweets for my needs until I read that it wasn’t intended for sweets as in candy; rather, it would have held sweet smelling herbs or dried flowers.
Also loved the sugar skull bag, though I honestly just find clutches annoying, because I need to have my hands free. I got a cute one to shove my phone and stuff in when I got married but because we travelled there on foot and were carrying cookies and cupcakes to hand out to our guests after the ceremony since we couldn’t have a reception due to Covid, I just ended up putting everything in a giant tote that I set out of sight during photos. Same goes for the Dairy Milk and horse chestnut bags – cute idea, but an absolute pain to carry, and good luck getting a phone in there! I swear I’ve seen the Normandie bag before, maybe at the Ocean Liners exhibition, but I still enjoyed seeing it here because I love all things nautical.
The other main section up here was about the construction of bags, and I really would have preferred a section like this on history instead. This part of the exhibition was mainly just annoying, because it was bedecked with loads of different fabrics that I was just itching to touch, except there were “do not touch” signs everywhere and a steward giving me hairy eyeball, so I didn’t dare. Yes, I know I shouldn’t be touching things anyway because of Covid, but don’t make something look marvellously tactile and then tell me I can’t touch it, because that’s just cruel.
Honestly, the best part of the exhibition, other than the frog bag, was the fact that they had rerouted the exits to make the exhibition one way, so we emerged into the wrought iron section of the permanent collections, which I hadn’t visited in years (the V&A is huge and I normally just come for special exhibitions these days, so it’s easy to forget this stuff exists), and I’d forgotten how cool it was. This is not to say that the Bags exhibition was terrible, but it wasn’t all that big, and the bags were quite spaced out upstairs, so they weren’t necessarily utilising all the space they could have for displays, which meant the interpretation was definitely a bit lacking. Some of the bags were really neat, but I didn’t come out of this feeling I had really learned anything about bags, and I can’t say I’m any more interested in them as a fashion item than I was going in. 2.5/5.