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Stepping into the lobby of the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, the first thing I notice for sale is a screaming orange bag with a handgun embossed on the front. Next to it is a similarly-styled light gray option penetrated with the shape of a butcher knife. Of course, there are tamer bags, too, in the museum’s lobby gift shop. But my curiosity has been piqued — what else is there to see in this unique place?
Upstairs in the museum’s exhibit space, the parade of unusual items continues. These are well beyond the traditional handbags one might use to cart around a cell phone, keys, and a few credit cards. One – a 1980s creation by Dallas Handbags – is, in fact, a working telephone. There is a Diet Coke can purse next to a red wicker contraption in the shape of a lobster. Nearby is a stunning Judith Leiber creation, “The Cupcake.” This Swarovski crystal-covered bag became immensely popular when a replica was featured in the first Sex and the City movie.
Items on display go beyond distinctive shapes to those made of uncommon materials. The Museum of Bags and Purses (known as Tassenmuseum Hendrikje in Dutch) has a group of bags from the early 20th century made of exotic animal skins and hides, many of which have been donated because their owners were uncomfortable continuing to have them. A leopard and leather bag from Botswana is as striking for its rarity as its design. The elephant bag just makes me sad. Other items are made of snakeskin, ivory, zebra, stingray, and a variety of different skins. Though they are certainly no longer politically correct, the museum positions them to show their place in the history of design.
Of course the heart of the museum is about the history of design, showing how changes in culture influence changes in the types of bags and purses people need and use. And with more than 5000 bags in the collection, there is a lot of history to see.
The oldest bag in the collection dates from the 16th century. Interestingly enough, it’s a man’s bag – a practical solution for carrying money and other items before clothes had pockets. Visitors can also see women’s “thigh pouches” from around this time. These bags, often worn in pairs, hung from the waist under the voluminous skirts that were in fashion. By the 17th century, men’s clothes got pockets, but women still wore pouches, carried their purses hanging from chains and hooks, or held their belongings in unattached pouches. Beautiful examples of all these items are on display in the museum.
The museum traces bags through their use as ways to disguise odor (i.e., sweetbags), as wedding gifts, and as political statements. You can even see bags that commemorate 19th century events, such as the first steamer to cross the Atlantic or the arrival of the first giraffe in France. All these people crossing oceans (and countries and states) on newfangled railways and ships needed new trunks and small hand luggage to make the trips. These small leather pieces with flat bottoms were the forerunners to today’s handbags.
Some of the more familiar pieces in the Museum of Bags and Purses are from recent times. Bags on display from the 20th century are made from a variety of new materials like plastics and lucite, and they reflect the changing needs of women who required accessories for everything from the office to evening. There are also brand name bags that demonstrate how purses have become a fashion statement and status indicator with the rise of designers like Chanel, Hermes, and Gucci, among many, many others. Needless to say, there’s lots to see here.
Once I make my way through the three floors of exhibits, it’s time to head to the museum’s cafe for high tea. In the front rooms that overlook the canal, visitors can appreciate the beauty of this space — a canal house that dates from 1666. As I enjoy my finger sandwiches and pastries — and especially my scone — I watch the boats glide by outside. Yes, this is definitely my kind of museum.
Visiting the Museum of Bags and Purses
Location: Herengracht 573 in Amsterdam
Hours: 10:00am – 5:00pm daily
Tickets: Adult admission is €13; tickets for students are €10; admission is free with the Iamsterdam card
See the website for additional information about discounts and logistics.