Princess Grace’s gorgeous face on a sandwich board tucked between bicycles on a narrow canal-street in Amsterdam advertises ‘Royal bags and purses.’ It’s the Museum of Bags and Purses and it’s a little off the tourist track but attracts an assortment of visitors.
Behind its rather ordinary door is a rather extraordinary display showing the development of bags and purses from the Middle Ages to the present day. I was told it is the largest collection of its kind in the world and that’s not unexpected when you consider the uniqueness of it all. The Museum of Bags and Purses shows and tells the stories of these everyday articles. It’s an intriguing story of utility, fashion, art, social custom, and history.
The permanent display is over three floors in a beautifully preserved 17th century Herengracht canal-house. There are apparently 4000 bags and purses as well as carry cases and even shoes on display, all with explanatory notes and historical contexts.
Before clothing had pockets, bags and purses were used to carry bibles, alms, precious items and money. Most were pouches of leather or cloth that hung from a belt. There is a 1745 silk-embroidered purse from Scotland purported to belong to Bonnie Prince Charlie and an 17th century alms bag inscribed ‘remember the pore 1630.’ There are 17th and 18th century embroidered bags with such fine and delicate needlework as well as beaded bags of amazing detail. There are Limoges boxes and chatelaines: decorative carrying chains that went out of fashion in the last century with the growth in handbag use. There are colourfully-beaded bags with exotic Chinese scenes and letter cases (one unfolding like origami).
When railway travel became popular, sturdy bags were required and materials like leather and crocodile skin became the fashion. Changing times meant changing materials and bags made of mesh, steel, and plastic all played their part in 1900s fashion. A case for old-fashioned glasses was made of steel, snakeskin, mother of pearl, tortoise shell, and engraved ivory. It was exquisite. There were some funky geometric Art Deco designs and some rather bizarre bags in shapes of fish, phones, clocks, and cars.
There are bags of ostrich, horse, zebra, antelope hide, fish, and toad skins, stingrays, and even an armadillo! As awful as that sounds the bags have to be appreciated for their true beauty. There are also contemporary bags from the likes of Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton that I recognised. Others included Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, and Stella McCartney.
This is a luxurious private museum with snug rooms filled with breathtakingly beautiful displays and lots of great information.
Amsterdam is not short of museums. The Rijksmuseum is awash with Rembrandt and Van Gogh, there’s the Pipe Museum, the Museum of Canal Boats, the Sex Museum, Diamond Museum, and the Modern Contemporary (MOCO) where Banksy and Warhol stencils are hung. It’s not surprising that Amsterdam should have the one place in the world that has so many beautiful, valuable, playful, and intriguing bags and purses in one collection.