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Frog Purse, 17th century. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Handbags, shopping bags, rucksacks: there is no other accessory that is as practical and has such a fashionable, indispensable and expressive place in everyday life. Bags, whatever their type or style, are certainly much more than sheer objects of daily use. Not only are their material, colour and design important, but also what brand or exclusive fashion label the pieces originate from. Bags project bold statements externally while hiding our most valuable belongings inside them.

Bags: Inside Out at the V&A Museum in London is the most extensive exhibition devoted to the ultimate accessory to have ever been held in the UK. It presents about 300 objects, takes an exclusive look at the world of the factory, workshop and studio – and explores the fascination held for the humble bag, from designer handbags to parcel boxes and beauty boxes as well as military rucksacks, tiny wallets and luxurious suitcases. It also examines the function, status and craftsmanship of these coveted objects from the 16th century to today. The more rarely exhibited pieces include an opulently embroidered bag used by Elizabeth I to protect the Great Seal of England, a gas mask holder that belonged to HM Queen Mary during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s red despatch box and Vivien Leigh’s briefcase.

On top of that, there are examples of celebrity culture such as a “Lady Dior” handbag named after Princess Diana or the Mulberry handbags worn by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung. The exhibition also looks at the design and manufacturing process – from the sketch to the model, from stitching to the sale – and ends with designers who experiment with innovative and ecologically sustainable materials, including a rucksack by Stella McCartney made of recycled plastic ocean waste and a bag made of old fire hoses. The museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and an opening date has not been set yet. The exhibition is planned to be on display until 12 September 2021.

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