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November 23, 2017
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The third floor of the Simone Handbag Museum dedicated to handbags from the 1500s to 1900. Source: judithclarkcostume.com.
Simone Handbag Museum Seoul
The BagStage Building, Seoul.
Image courtesy of Simone Handbag Museum. 

For women the world over, a gleaming museum filled with hundreds of handbags isn't a difficult sell. But beyond its obvious mass appeal, the triumph of the Simone Handbag Museum in Seoul is in its ability to reveal the story of women's lives through its collection of over 300 handbags from the 16th century until present.

One could walk by the entire three-floor collection in under five minutes - let's face it, bags don't need much space - but that would miss the point. The richly detailed 30-page exhibition booklet scarcely does justice to the physical beauty of the bags and the delightful experience of simultaneously imagining the lives of the women who carried (or wore) them.

Found inside the new ten-storey handbag-shaped BagStage Building in the trendy Garosu-gil district of Gangnam, the museum opened in July 2012. Led by Judith Clark, professor at the London College of Fashion and former head curator of London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the museum acquired its collection over two years through global auctioneers such as Sotheby's, as well as from private collectors around the world.

The cool, dark (even by museum standards), humidity-controlled room on the building's fourth floor that houses the museum's bags from the 1550s to 1900 hints at the challenges in preserving textiles and the fragility of the exhibits. From behind glass-enclosed cabinets, gentle spotlights illuminate some of the earliest examples of misers, sweetmeat purses, reticules, chatelaines and tie-on pockets.

Having already perused the exhibit guide before my visit, one of the most surprising aspects of the collection was just how small some of the earliest bags were when seen in the flesh. Take exhibit 42, for example. The tiny green silk crochet purse from Europe is scarcely a couple of inches wide and would have likely carried a few coins or perhaps other small precious belongings of the owner. The purse's decorative frame is made of pinchbeck, an imitation gold named after its inventor, London clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck, which was a fashionable material in the late-18th century.

Simone Handbag Museum Seoul

A (tiny) silk crochet and pinchbeck purse, 1800-19.
Source: simonehandbagmuseum.co.kr.

According to the booklet, until the late-19th century handbags were not required to hold the multiple objects now considered necessary for a full day. "Thus, they formed sites for intense work and costly materials" and are "exquisite, jewel-like, objects" whether "undertaken as a leisure activity within the home [or] within professional workshop and studio contexts."

Indeed, the earliest examples in the museum are predominantly made of silk and involve intricate weaving and embroidery - for example, the delicate hand-embroidered flowers, animals and insects on a 1580 sweetmeat purse ("motifs were taken from popular texts, such as Claude Paradin's Devises Heroiques (1557) and Thomas Trevelyon's Miscellany (1608)," notes the guidebook).

"These [earlier] handbags were used for dramatically different purposes than how they are used today. Some were for carrying smelling herbs or 'sweetmeats' - candies - and then money. The handbag symbolized the emancipation of women - they were able to finally spend money, gaining more freedom over the years," Clark told the New York Times.

Notably, many of these early examples were often worn against the body or underneath clothing. But as senior fashion curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Claire Wilcox, cheekily wrote in the exhibit's accompanying hardcover book, Handbags - The Making of a Museum, "In the 1790s women's fashions changed radically (suffice it to say that political events took place in France). Full petticoats went out of style and there was no longer any room for bulging pockets. […] Pockets crept out of the dark and were turned into bags that were carried daintily between the fingers or over the arm, as we carry handbags today." 

Isn't it interesting, despite [for example] the coin purses made out of gold from centuries ago, the Birkin is still the most costly bag in our collection.

For this reason, the museum's senior curator, Dawn Jung, believes the museum's most historically significant bags are exhibits 40 and 41 - boxy bags (circa 1800-09) made from wood, tortoise shell, leather and steel that were rare for their materials and thus would have required to have been carried rather than worn.

As the bags move into the 19th century, not only does the fall-out from the French Revolution become evident, but so to does the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of train travel. According to Jung, after the 1880s, as an increasing number of women began working outside of the home, women required more practical bags. Sturdy, leather, utilitarian bags with protective metal hardware similar to luggage became more prominent - and are the basis of the handbags we carry today.

Clark told the New York Times, "There are wonderful trajectories of the typology of bag that were discovered through this research; you could see repetitions of certain styles and shapes in different decades, as well as revivals." Asian and Middle Eastern influence on European artwork and furniture from the 19th century is also seen on purses. Art Deco style is seen on 1920s handbags, and there is even a gas mask handbag from 1939. Although it was a requirement to carry a gas mask at all times during the Second World War, the general public balked at the idea, prompting manufacturers to design an aesthetically appealing carrier, according to the exhibition booklet.

As for the idea of the "It bag", Clark says that it "is a 20th-century phenomenon, coinciding with the rise of the cult of the designer." When I ask Jung what she thinks this century's most famous It bag is, she replies, "it's still the Birkin." In fact, the most expensive bag in the museum's collection is the alligator skin Birkin bag acquired from Christie's for approximately US$100,000. "Isn't it interesting," Jung muses, "despite [for example] the coin purses made out of gold from centuries ago, the Birkin is still the most costly bag in our collection."

Simone Handbag Museum Seoul

A leather and tortoise-shell bag, 1800-09.
Image courtesy of Simone Handbag Museum.

A fair share of It bags are housed on the third floor of the BagStage Building, in a bright, white, minimal space dedicated to handbags of the 20th century. Here you can find an Alexander McQueen skull-clasp Union Jack clutch, a lace Dolce & Gabbana "Sicily Bag", and a silver Fendi "Baguette" made from leather, sheepskin and metal designed by Silvia Venturini Fendi. Other notable bags include an Elsa Schiaparelli leather and leopard fur belt bag worn by the Duchess of Windsor and a Louis Vuitton vanity case bearing her initials; Paco Rabanne's 1968 chain-mail handbag, inspired by butchers' metal aprons and lavatory chain referencing Marcel Duchamps' "ready-mades"; and many other iconic pieces from the likes of Roberta di Camerino, Moschino, Judith Lieber and Chanel.

Interestingly, Kenny Park, CEO of Simone Acc. Collection Ltd., the Korean handbag company behind the BagStory project, noted "My original plan was to create a space where the history of eastern and western handbags might be unfolded together, but, because of the lack of material evidence of the history of eastern handbags, I decided to focus in the first instance of western handbags. […] Sooner or later, I intend to present the other half of the story and so complete the original project." 

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