The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology unveiled its new exhibit, “Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function,” earlier this week.
The show — curated by students of the school’s graduate program for fashion and textile studies — traces the handbag’s history as an item of status and function.
Artifacts on display date back to the 18th century, when women’s skirts festooned so large that their belongings were tucked into pockets concealed within the volume. The streamlined, neo-classical silhouettes of post-revolutionary France did not allow the same convenience, and thus handbags — then tiny pouches called reticules — were born.
Reticules later evolved into larger handbags — and with the dawn of luxury houses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were reborn as status symbols.
“I think we see in the objects students curated for show, how luxury materials are used in bags so that people can communicate wealth and show off their affluence. Of course we want to communicate status in society without saying it verbally,” said Sarah Byrd, an adjunct instructor for FIT’s school of graduate studies.
Kaelyn Garcia, a graduate student at FIT, said that according to letters and memoirs, purses originally held objects like, “letters, small fruits like oranges, knitting needles. It depended on the time of day and if this was a woman of leisure. In the 1800s we actually see women start going out shopping, so it depends on he time period and social ideas of the time.”
The exhibit examines the ‘It’ bags of the early Aughts, including Louis Vuitton’s multicolor monogram tie-up with artist Takashi Murakami. “They are iconic designs that were very of-the-moment,” Garcia said of the styles of that era.
The show also examines the current state of bags, and features The New Yorker magazine’s branded tote as an expression of post ‘It’ bag culture. The style, and many other canvas bags like it, has become an essential accessory for urban commuters — a graphic, low-cost method of transporting the day’s necessities.
Explained student Caela Castillo: “You are using it as branding object for yourself to express the ideals and sort of beliefs that you have. It’s an interesting time and place in America right now where everyone wants to talk their beliefs and cultural standpoints. This is an easy thing to do with a tote — it’s a practical thing, whether you add $5 on at the register or express what museum you frequent, it talks a lot about a person’s interests.”
“Purses: Fashion + Function,” is on view through May 5.