About the Bags: Inside Out exhibition

Bags: Inside Out 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 our longstanding fascination with the bag, from designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases to military rucksacks.

Fendi Baguette bag worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, 2000, Italy. Image courtesy of Fendi

Bags project bold statements to the outside world whilst concealing our most treasured belongings. Featuring around 300 objects, varying in scale from tiny purses held on a fingertip to luxurious travel trunks, the exhibition explores the function, status and craftsmanship of these highly covetable objects from the 16th century to today.

Left to right: Burse for the Great Seal of England, 1558 – 1603, England. Museum no. T.40-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; John Peck & Son, London, Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for the Colonies Despatch Box No.7. Image Courtesy of Sotheby's

The first section of the exhibition examines bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings – from holiday outfits to confidential documents, make-up to money and even gas masks. Rare exhibits on show include a large embroidered burse used to protect Elizabeth I's Great Seal of England, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the Second World War, Winston Churchill's red despatch box and Vivien Leigh's attaché case, as well as a striking Louis Vuitton trunk from the early 1900s.

Malle Haute trunk, Louis Vuitton, about 1910, Paris, France. Museum no. W.12-2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Titled Status and Identity, the second of the exhibition sections looks at the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite. Featuring a Hermès 'Kelly' named in honour of Grace Kelly, a 'Lady Dior' handbag named after Princess Diana, the Fendi 'Baguette' bag worn by and stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker in one of Sex and the City's most famous scenes and a gold Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' Speedy bag by Marc Jacobs popularised by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. The first-ever made Hermès Birkin bag, owned by Jane Birkin, and Mulberry handbags worn by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung also feature.

Left to right: Grace Kelly's departure from Hollywood (Photo by Allan Grant The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images); Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' handbags in Sydney, Australia 2006. Photo by PhotoNews International Inc, Getty Images

The use of bags as a blank canvas for slogans, personal statements and political messages and their role as a public platform to share beliefs and convictions is represented through objects including an anti-slavery reticule bag from 1825, the 'I am NOT a Plastic Bag' tote by Anya Hindmarch and a 'My Body My Business' handbag by artist and activist Michele Pred.

'I'm NOT a Plastic bag' tote bag, Anya Hindmarch and We Are What We Do, 2007, London, England. Museum no. T.176-2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The final section of the show will look at the Design and Making process from sketch to sample, sewing to selling. A 'maker's table' will allow visitors to get up close with bag making processes and materials, alongside newly commissioned interviews with designers and makers. Sketches, samples and prototypes from international fashion houses and the UK luxury brand Mulberry will show the innovative early stages of the design process.

Frog Purse. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A hotbed for collaboration, the bag offers an opportunity for experimentation and statement designs. A 17th-century purse in the shape of a frog, Thom Browne's handbag in the form of his dog Hector and a Chanel bag transformed into a milk carton will explore the surrealism and humour evoked through accessories.

Left to right: Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union wear Thom Browne outside the Thom Browne show on June 25, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Melodie Jeng, Getty Images); Model with Lait de Coco Evening Bag, Karl Lagerfeld, 2014 © Jason Lloyd Evans

The exhibition finishes with designers experimenting with innovative and environmentally sustainable materials, including a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste and a bag crafted from decommissioned fire hoses by Elvis and Kresse.

Stella McCartney x Parley for the Oceans, ‘Ocean Legend’ Falabella Go backpack Spring – Summer 2018, London. Museum no. T.174–2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

Speedy handbag, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Autumn – Winter 2006, Paris, France. Museum no. T.172–2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London