A bag exhibition comprised of more than 300 items ranging from the 16th century to the modern day has opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Bags: Inside Out is the UK's most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the ultimate accessory and it explores our longstanding fascination with the bag.

The exhibition features designs from Mulberry to Karl Lagerfeld, bags carried by Vivien Leigh to Sarah Jessica Parker, the heritage of Hermès to the streetwear of Off-White, and an exclusive look inside the world of the factory and atelier. It explores the function, status and craftsmanship of bags, which often project bold statements to the outside world while concealing our most treasured belongings.

A mannequin with steel tiny bags around the waist
Chatelaine, 1863-85, in cut steel © Victoria and Albert Museum

The first section of the exhibition on "Function" examines bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings. From holiday outfits to confidential documents, makeup to money and even gas masks, the design and materials of our bags often reflect their intended purpose as functional objects. Rare exhibits on show include a large embroidered purse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the World War II, Winston Churchill’s red despatch box and Vivien Leigh’s attaché case.

The second section, "Status and Identity," examines the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite. Featuring a Hermès ‘Kelly’ bag named in honour of Grace Kelly and a ‘Lady Dior’ handbag named after Princess Diana, the exhibition explores the powerful and influential world of celebrity endorsement. The Fendi ‘Baguette’ bag worn by, and stolen from, Sarah Jessica Parker in one of Sex and the City’s most famous scenes sits alongside a gold Louis Vuitton ‘Monogram Miroir’ Speedy bag by Marc Jacobs popularised by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian carrying bags.jpg
Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 'Monogram Miroir' handbags © PhotoNews International Inc, Getty Images

The wardrobe of Margaret Thatcher acted as her suit of armour and her handbag was essential to the image of the ‘Iron Lady.’ Thatcher’s handbag is one of the leading examples of the bag as a symbol of power. The use of bags as a blank canvas for slogans, personal statements and political messages and their role as a public platform to share beliefs and convictions is represented through objects including an anti-slavery reticule bag from 1825, the ‘I am NOT a Plastic Bag’ tote by Anya Hindmarch and a ‘My Body My Business’ handbag by artist and activist Michele Pred.

A hand holding a bamboo weaving handbag by Shang Xia
A bamboo weaving handbag from Shang Xia 2019 © V&A

The final section of the show looks at the "Design and Making" process from sketch to sample and sewing to selling, and lifts the lid of the ingenuity employed by leading brands. A ‘maker’s table’ will allow visitors to get up close and personal with bag-making processes and materials alongside newly-commissioned interviews with designers and makers. An insight into the skilled work of shaping bags will include examples of intricate craftmanship employed on a 17th century silver filigree heart-shaped purse, a metal chainmail belt bag by Paco Rabanne and a 17th century letter case decorated with exquisite straw embroidery.

Bags: Inside Out runs at the V&A until 12 September 2021 and further information is available here.

You might also like:

Travel gear reviews: bags for every itinerary
How to pack like a pro for a backpacking trip
The 9 best weekender bags for your next mini-break

Explore related stories

Kate Moss at London Fashion Week SS14 - Topshop Unique - Arrivals, London. 15/09/2013


London Fashion Week 2022: everything you need to know about this year's event

Jan 28, 2022 • 3 min read