Handbag museum feeds female obsession

AMSTERDAM, Aug 31 (Reuters Life!) - A new Dutch museum celebrates an object which has driven women through the ages to extravagant expense and irrational desire -- the handbag.

An Armadillo Handbag is seen in the Amsterdam Tassen Museum August 31, 2007. A new Dutch museum celebrates an object which has driven women through the ages to extravagant expense and irrational desire -- the handbag. REUTERS/Handout/The Amsterdam Tassen Museum

The Amsterdam Tassen Museum’s collection of 3,500 bags, suitcases and purses ranges from a simple seventeenth-century pouch, worn by a noblewoman buried beneath her cloak, to a startling armadillo-skin handbag complete with the beast’s head and paws.

Museum manager Sigrid Ivo says it is one of only three such museums in the world, and it is the largest.

Housed in an imposing seventeenth-century canalside residence, the museum traces the history of handbags in the Western world, beginning with the Middle Ages and continuing to today’s luxury designer clutches.

Whereas bags are now a key fashion accessory and much-coveted adornment, they began life centuries ago as a purely practical item, used for storing personal belongings before tailors had dreamed up the pocket.

Simple coin-purses or pouches were mostly hung from the waist beneath exterior clothing, so as not to attract the attention of brigands or thieves.

With the arrival of pockets, bags were viewed more specifically as female attire and consequently attracted more adornment and pattern.

It was not long before eighteenth-century women wanted to show-off their beaded or embroidered bags, or began to demand dainty bags for storing love-letters or missals.

The majority of visitors to the museum are women but Ivo says there is plenty for men too.

“Men usually come with their wives and find the history of the bag and its social aspects interesting.”

In fact the museum’s oldest and most valuable exhibit is a man’s bag -- a sixteenth-century goat-skin belt pouch with iron clasps on its 18 little pockets.

Ivo’s favorite is among the most exclusive of the museum’s bags -- a 1920s snakeskin evening bag with a carved ivory panel depicting Eve in the Garden of Eden about to pick the apple.

The museum owes its existence to Ivo’s mother Hendrikje, whose passion for bags began when she bought an antique tortoiseshell bag in England and resolved to find out all she could about its history.

She continued to collect bags from across Europe, although the museum, which was first housed in her own home in the suburbs, has also received many pieces as donations.


A popular variant on the handbag in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the chatelaine, a series of chains connecting to a woman’s waistband or belt and used for suspending useful items such as keys, thimbles and watches.

Then as now, the more valuable the items on display, the more envy and admiration you attracted.

Bags as we know them today developed as travel grew more popular, whereas handbags achieved mass popularity as women started to go out to work.

Obsession with brands began in the twentieth century. Many brands relied on a celebrity for endorsement and fame, such as the Kelly bag, a classical rectangular model by Hermes, popularized by actress Grace Kelly.

Another classic on display at the museum is the 2.55 by Chanel, named after the month and year of its introduction and made of quilted leather with a golden chain.

The eyes of two visitors sparkle as they look at the bags displayed behind thick glass. “There are a lot of bags I want to take home”, one woman says. “Oh we women… We just love bags!”