The Once and Future Handbag

In a case of truly unfortunate timing, the week before the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blockbuster show celebrating all things bag related — an exhibition over 18 months in the making, one of the largest ever in a museum, with loans from around the world — was to have opened on April 25, Britain shut down in response to the coronavirus. The show was postponed.

真是不幸,就在维多利亚和阿尔伯特博物馆(Victoria and Albert Museum,简称V&A)原定于4月25日开幕的大型手袋相关物品展的前一周,英国为应对新冠病毒关闭了博物馆。展览被推迟了。这个展览历时18个月的筹备,是该馆有史以来最大的展览之一,从世界各地借来藏品。

So far, so normal for global cultural events during the pandemic. But then something unusual started to occur.


As the months of stasis stretched on, the whole concept of the handbag, that repository of stuff and signifier of personality, that accessory that had become so obsessively renewable it drove record-setting profits for numerous fashion brands, began to seem irrelevant. And not just because there were fears when lockdown began that bags could be virus carriers.


What was the point of a bag if no one could go out? Why did we ever think we needed so many of them in the first place? What are we supposed to do with all of those extra totes and purses and clutches? According to data from Euromonitor, a research firm, bag sales this year fell 10% to 28% in every region of the world compared with last year.


Suddenly it seemed as if, with 2020, the age of the handbag might actually have come to an end. With the V&A show, when it happened, if it happened, acting as its obituary.


As if.


This weekend “Bags: Inside Out” finally opens to the public, and what it suggests is that any rumor of the death of the handbag has been greatly exaggerated.

本周末,“手袋:内外”(Bags: Inside Out)展览终于向公众开放,表明了任何关于手袋已死的谣言都是危言耸听。

That, in fact, bags have been intertwined with both male and female identity for centuries, and have survived multiple crises, only to return with even more import. That reports from Dior and Hermès of handbags selling out as stores reopen in Asia and life returns to quasi-normal are actually not anomalies, but part of a historical pattern.


That the news of record vintage handbag auctions at Christie’s, the dominant force in the resale market, which recorded a total of $2,266,750 during an online sale in July, including $300,000 for a crocodile Hermès Diamond Himalaya Birkin 25, may be a harbinger of the future. That the hullabaloo on social media last week about Houston Rockets point guard James Harden giving rapper Lil Baby a black Prada nylon duffel bag for his birthday filled with very expensive treats was a sign of the times.

二手市场的主导力量佳士得(Christie’s)在去年7月的一场网上拍卖中,拍得226.675万美元的创纪录价格,其中包括一只拍得30万美元的爱马仕鳄鱼皮钻石喜马拉雅铂金包25,这些古董手袋拍卖创纪录的消息可能会是未来的一个预兆。上周,休斯敦火箭队控卫詹姆斯·哈登(James Harden)给说唱歌手Lil Baby送了一个黑色Prada尼龙行李袋作为生日礼物,里面装满了昂贵礼物,这在社交网络上引起的轩然大波也是当下时代的写照。

“People kept saying it was the end of bags,” said Lucia Savi, the curator who put the V&A show together. “But bags go hand in hand with humanity. We have always had to carry something.”

“人们一直说手袋的时代结束了,”该V&A展览的策划人露西娅·萨维(Lucia Savi)说。“但手袋与人性是紧密相连的。我们手上总要拿点东西。”

Even in a pandemic, it turns out, le sac c’est nous. Perhaps what we ought to be wondering is why.


A Brief History of Handbags


It is impossible to know who invented the handbag, but they seem to have been with us almost from the beginning. Bags made from linen, papyrus and leather were found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, dating from 2686 to 2160 B.C. In ancient Greece, little leather bags were used for coins; one of the first known purse owners was Judas Iscariot, whose job it was to carry the money bag for Jesus and his disciples.


The British Museum has a gold and garnet lid believed to have come from a bag belonging to a man in the seventh century and found in the Sutton Hoo excavation. There are bags depicted in an Assyrian wall carving found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in the ninth century, featuring a winged figure toting what looks like a purse.

大英博物馆藏有一个在萨顿胡遗址出土、由黄金和石榴石打造的盖子,据信来自7世纪一名男子的手袋。在九世纪尼姆鲁德阿淑尔纳西尔帕二世(Ashurnasirpal II)的宫殿发现的亚述墙雕上,也能看到手袋的踪影——一个带翅膀的人物,手拿一个看起来像是钱包的物件。

Bags play a role in “The Canterbury Tales,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Anna Karenina” (among other literary masterpieces).


Indeed, Savi said her point with the show was to elucidate the living and universal nature of bags — not to treat them as sculptures in leather and cloth, but to reveal the peculiarly unique role they play in both our physical and psychological lives, and the ways in which they become part of not just the fashion record but also history.


That despite all of its iterations, there is no substitute for a bag.


Hence the show, the largest devoted to bags to be held at a museum that is not a bags-only museum since the 2004 “Le Cas du Sac” at the Musée de la Mode in Paris. (Those bag-only museums include the Simone handbag museum in Seoul; the Tassenmuseum, or Museum of Bags and Purses, in Amsterdam; and the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.)

因此,这次展览是继2004年巴黎时尚博物馆的“手袋展览(Le Cas du Sac)”之后,在一个非纯手袋博物馆举办的规模最大的手袋展览。(那些纯手袋博物馆包括首尔的西蒙手袋博物馆,阿姆斯特丹的包包和钱包博物馆,以及阿肯色州小岩城的ESSE钱包博物馆。)

Composed of more than 250 bags and bag-related pieces from around the world, “Bags: Inside Out” is divided into three parts: function and utility (bags as receptacles); status and identity (bags as celebrity totems); and design and making (how bags are constructed).


What’s in a Bag?


It may be counterintuitive, but even if we are going out less during the pandemic, we often have to carry more when we do go out, meaning the bags we choose are increasingly important.


They need to hold hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, extra shoes, all the personal protective equipment we have now become used to bringing on any outing — just as, during World War I, Savi noted, people needed bags to hold their gas masks. (Queen Mary’s gas mask bag is on display at the V&A show.)


It is also true, said Beth Goldstein, the fashion, footwear and accessories analyst at NPD Group, that despite the general slowdown in the bag market during the pandemic, certain segments have proved notably hardy, especially the higher end and resale.

NPD集团(NPD Group)的时尚、鞋类和配饰分析师贝丝·戈德斯坦(Beth Goldstein)说,尽管疫情期间手袋市场总体增长放缓,但某些细分市场已被证明尤其经受得住打击也是事实,特别是高端和二手市场。

Charles Gorra, chief executive of the Rebag resale site, said that just after the start of lockdown in the United States they had a week of sales larger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday of 2019 combined; he attributes the growth to the need for “retail therapy” and desire for self-care.

Rebag二手网站的首席执行官查尔斯·戈拉(Charles Gorra)表示,就在美国封锁开始后一周,他们一周的销售额比2019年的“黑色星期五”和“网购星期一”加起来还多;他将这种增长归功于人们“购物疗法”的需求和自我关怀的渴望。

Savi cites three additional factors: the professional sectors that stayed solvent during the pandemic maintained an income stream even as current events curtailed discretionary spending, creating more disposable income; the fact that of all fashion items, bags are among the easiest to buy online, everyone’s current shopping destination of choice; and the behavioral tendency, in times of crisis, to retreat to the classic, putting money into pieces that hold their investment and aesthetic value.


Indeed, amid all the hand-wringing — perhaps precisely because of the hand-wringing — Savi thinks that bags have become another kind of symbol. Not of aspiration or indulgence, not of what we have lost, but rather of optimism and hope. That to swing your bag onto your shoulder is to make a statement of belief: One day we will go out again.


And that means, she said, “we have realized we do need bags. Actually more than ever.”


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