When did the handbag become a fashion fetish? It started with the sexual revolution in the Seventies and snowballed as women came out of the kitchen and into the workplace.

At least that’s the answer proposed by “Le Cas du Sac,” an exhibition of more than 400 bags at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles here through Feb. 20. (While the phrase translates to “The Case of the Bag,” the official English title of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue is “Carried Away.”)

Co-organized by Hermès, it traces the bag’s evolution in civilizations across the world, from the Dark Ages to modern times. A dozen specialists — in fields from nomad and Arab cultures to African and Native American art — contributed to the show.

“The initial idea was that when you open someone’s bag and examine its contents, you know a lot about the person,” explained Stephane Wargnier, Hermès’ corporate communications director. “The bag is emblematic of the self.”

And what did women carry in their bags before mobile phones, car keys and lipstick?

“In the Middle Ages, the bag had religious connotations,” said Olivier Saillard, the fashion museum conservator who co-organized the show. “Purses were richly decorated with ornate hardware. Inside, [women] carried relics, such as the hair of a saint.”

Whether it was to carry food or to hide the letters of a lover, the bag has always mirrored changes in society, Saillard said.

In the late 19th century, for example, as the European elite began to travel, the first Goyard and Louis Vuitton steamer trunks were born. The show draws parallels between these and the bags Bedouins throw on the backs of camels.

“Both reflect a nomadic culture,” Saillard said.

Meanwhile, the handbag enjoyed the most popularity in periods when clothing was worn close to the body.

“When fashions are close to the body, the bag is worn on the exterior of the clothes,” said Saillard, pointing to the Middle Ages as a prime example. “In the 18th century, the clothes were voluminous, and the bag was hidden under the petticoats. The Chinese didn’t have a very strong bag culture until recently, because their clothes were traditionally very loose.”Function has always been primordial to the bag — even in its most chic forms.

For example, in a little-known essay written by Le Corbusier in 1925, the architect cites an Hermès bag as an example of “the beauty of the functional.”

“Bags were ultradecorated at the time of the essay,” said Saillard. “Le Corbusier drew parallels between his architecture and the minimalist purity of the Hermès bag.”

But even if handbags have only recently become a fashion obsession, the vogue for vintage purses has deep roots, according to the exhibition.

“It’s an old story,” explained Saillard. “The first wave for vintage began in the 19th century. Women would recuperate the hardware from 18th-century bags to make a new one.”

— Robert Murphy

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