Unpacking the Handbag at the V&A’s Latest Exhibition

Whether you are embarking on an adventure, sneaking out at midnight to see your lover, or planning a jaw dropping entrance to the most fashionable of parties, you will need a bag.

Slung over the shoulder, saddled to your side, swinging by your hip, no matter what form it comes in, everybody knows the bag is the ultimate accessory.

In a comprehensive exhibition running until the 16th January 2022, Bags: Inside Out explores the versatility, beauty and the actual craft behind their construction.

As pockets weren’t invented until the 17th century, the bag became an incredibly stylish essential limb, and over the last few centuries they have evolved to both hold and say a million things. This rich history fills the V&A all winter, adorning its walls and thrilling its audiences.

Across these sections you’ll see designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases to military rucksacks, as the exhibition unpacks our obsession with this seemingly small everyday item. And it is quite something to stand before some of these items; to be hypnotised by the large embroidered purse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England and to whistle in pure envy at Carrie Bradshaw’s iconic Fendi ‘Baguette’.


The social status of a bag is as important as its duty to its owner. It holds a central role in celebrity culture, and as a signifier of wealth and status. The right endorsement by a beloved figure can alter bag’s entire trajectory.


The exhibition highlights this by featuring the quintessential Hermès ‘Kelly’ bag, named in honour of Grace Kelly; and a ‘Lady Dior’ handbag named after Princess Diana. Centre stage to this theme is the first ever Hermès Birkin owned by actress and singer Jane Birkin, which has become one of the most sought-after bags of the 20th and 21st century.


From sketch to sample, sewing to selling, in the final section exploring the design process the skilled employees of century-old fashion houses are put under the spotlight. Exclusive prototypes from Mulberry are on display, as well as a 17th century purse in the shape of a frog, and a playful ‘Florist’s Basket’ by Lulu Guinness.

Bags: Inside Out displays intricate craftsmanship alongside newly commissioned interviews with designers and makers, before finally exploring the future, and fashion’s new, environmentally-conscious focus. Here, bags using sustainable materials are featured, including a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste, and a bag crafted from decommissioned fire hoses by Elvis and Kresse.


‘These portable, yet functional accessories have long fascinated men and women with their dual nature that combines private and public. By exploring their continuing importance in our lives and as part of the history of design, the exhibition highlights the V&A’s mission to illuminate the past and inspire designers of the future,’ Dr. Lucia Savi, the curator, explains.


As much as we love to keep our secrets stowed in our bags, we’d like to know everybody else’s. So grab your trustiest clutch, and head to the V&A to hear the stories of other bags, sensational craftmanship and illustrious owners. A bag may be little, but you’ll see it’s easy to get lost in its remarkably beautiful world.

For more information and tickets, please visit the V&A website

*This post was sponsored by the V&A

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