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passion for purses

A shrine for your birkin

The passion for purses has resulted in the world's first museum for handbags.

In the 1950s, Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue, announced, "We are going to eliminate all handbags. " Not only did that not happen, the humble handbag was elevated from fashion afterthought to fashion statement. Such has been the longevity of these style - and status - signifiers that they now have an entire museum devoted to them. The Simone Handbag Museum - which opened in Seoul's fashionable Gangnam district last month - houses over 300 handbags, ranging from a 16th century sweetmeat purse to a very expensive, red alligator skin Birkin from 1998. TOI-Crest spoke to Judith Clark, professor of fashion and museology at London College of Fashion, who has spent the last two years chasing down purses for the collection.

Bags have become an obvious totem of success. Do they deserve a museum devoted to them?

I think one of the wonderful things about bags is the many histories that they represent. I think I thought of this as a history of decorative arts and craft seen through this tiny object that accompanies the fashions of its day. The fact that it is always smaller than the gown/suit means that more time can be devoted to its surface and so is a wonderful example of craft - sometimes minute in its detail.

The collection spans a 16th century knitted purse to a Celine tote from the 2012 collection. How difficult was it to put it together?

It seemed absolutely impossible at the start as these bags were often so rare. I relied on dealers who could advise me and guide me to private collections. Two years was a very short space of time but it had a wonderful momentum.

Were you torn up about leaving out a particular bag?

It is difficult to look at 450 years of handbags and not want more than are available. But I have to say I fell in love with those we bought and felt so lucky that they had ever been through my hands. I would never had imagined buying an 1880s Boucheron gold coin purse. . . It was a magical experience.

Can you tell us something about the transformation of the handbag from a utilitarian thing to an

object of desire?

I think it is often both, historically also a way of women showing of their sewing skills, not only affluence but virtue!

You've also written a book on the history of handbags that will be out soon. What insights do they give us into women's lives?

They give us huge insight both into what was worn, used and what was treasured enough to be kept sometimes over generations. It is such a lovely symbol of women's increased presence in the city and their independent purchasing power.

"The It Bag is dead!", "Long Live the It Bag" - the headlines come fast and furious. Is the 'It Bag' over or has it just begun?

It is impossible to know. I guess it goes hand in hand with the celebrity culture that we are so immersed in - it is as though bags have had to be translated into something else. The museum is wonderful as it reminds us to look at the bags themselves, how beautiful they can be in their own right. You are inspired to wonder how they are made and why.

The famous power-women of yesteryear, from Margaret Thatcher to Nancy Reagan, all came complete with bags attached. For Thatcher, it seemed to serve as a kind of weapon and symbol of femininity. Between then and now, have things changed?

I think what has changed is that now bags can act as a kind of mobile office - women are carrying not only lipstick and their house keys, but a computer, a phone. Bags represent mobility and connectivity on a different level now.

What makes a bag classic? Does only the brand matter or the celebrity carrying it?

A classic is one that appeals to different generations for reasons that we could not know. Of course in the museum the closer you get to the present, the more likely the visitor would have seen an image of the bag as the ad campaigns are so vast. I think one thing to note here is that it is a museum dedicated to the history of western bags, in Seoul - and what is interesting is that contemporary bags are so global they cease to be 'Western'.

Can you tell us about a few landmarks in handbag history that the Simone museum marks?

One that is a great strength of the museum is a lovely collection of Gladstone bags and its derivatives for women around 1880s. A masculine bag transformed for the first bag that we really call a 'handbag'. Made from strong leather these were clearly for city use.

One of the exhibits in the museum is a cardboard box with a string designed to contain a British gas mask. Why did you include that?

I included the box as it was to carry the ultimate necessity. People always talk about bags in terms of essentials and so I think it was the right decision. It is a difficult thing to picture a gas mask as an essential and it reminds us to look at all the others slightly differently, doesn't it?

Do you expect male visitors to the museum?

At the opening of the museum there were many gentlemen who were absolutely gripped looking at the variety of bags. It was wonderful. I had underestimated how mesmerized they would be by these objects. Our main visitors though will be the many female shoppers on Garosugil - the trendy street that is the museum's address.

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