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PRECURSORS OF TODAY’S ICONS OF NEW Y0RK CITY STATUS AND STYLE—WOMEN’S PURSES—SHOWCASED IN EXHIBITION AT MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
It’s In The Bag: Purses from the Permanent Collection; October 7, 2006—January 28, 2007
Ladies’ purses from the last three centuries will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York from October 7, 2006 through January 28, 2007, in an exhibition titled It’s In The Bag: Purses from the Permanent Collection. More than 100 examples will be on view, illustrating the utilitarian beauty of these small portable treasures, created and worn in the days when a woman needed to carry only such bare essentials as a coin, handkerchief, calling card, scent bottle, and note pad. Then, as now, handbags were prized possessions, although not necessarily regarded as barometers of professional or economic status.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, ladies’ purses were routinely bestowed to mark rights of passage, and passed down through generations as fond keepsakes (even included in wills). Ladies’ companion books (instructive publications) provided patterns for purses that could be stitched, crocheted, or embroidered with silk and beads. Included in the exhibition will be many hand made confections ranging from an early 18th-century crewel-embroidered linen pocket to a rainbow-hued needlepoint pouch encrusted with ornamental cut-steel beads. Other examples illustrate the astonishing range of needle techniques and forms for miniature and jeweled coin pouches, slide-ring miser’s purses, and balloon-shaped reticules.
Souvenir purses from travel abroad were a favorite of New York society ladies; It’s In the Bag features a rich, exotic European red leather envelope dating from the 1820s, while another tiny example in gilt-trimmed velvet showcases hand-painted miniature medallions of cathedrals and ancient ruins that suggest pilgrimage.
Surprisingly, today’s ubiquitous branded bag was introduced in the 1870s on New York’s Ladies’ Mile, the shopping area that stretched from 14th Street to 34th Street along Sixth Avenue. From its cornerstone position on Union Square, Tiffany & Co. offered handsome, silver-trimmed pocketbooks, purses, card cases, and portfolios, all fashioned of superb leathers and sporting frames struck with their company name and marks. It’s In The Bag features twelve such examples, none more jewel-like than the calling card case framed in gold and diamonds with a folio of frog skin. The more rugged chatelaine pouches of the day were worn suspended by stamped silver belt-hooks.
Beaded bags of every shape, color, and size heralded the arrival of the 20th century New York woman. It’s In The Bag features bags created to carry to the theater, to dance halls, and even to speakeasies. The larger bag began to appear in the first decade of the century; as women began to seek careers in businesses dominated by men, they sought to underscore their nascent professional personae with larger, grander bags reflecting ingenious new design solutions for their increasingly complex roles. Interestingly, however, with the suffrage movement well underway by then, these larger bags were contrasted by the more slender, Parisian-influenced silhouette. The new professional woman required confident bags to underscore her nascent business persona.
The exhibition will also include an array of strikingly illustrative variations on a perennial theme: crisp black bags spanning the years 1870 to 1970.
Phyllis Magidson, the Museum’s curator of costume and textiles, is the curator of It’s In The Bag.