The V&A’s new exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, is dedicated to the ultimate accessory, from the first ever Birkin to Churchill’s red dispatch box


By Pearl Boyd

The first-ever made Hermès Birkin bag owned by Jane Birkin and Mulberry handbags worn by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung will join almost 300 standout pieces as part of the V&A’s next major fashion exhibition, Bags: Inside Out. The exhibition will be the UK’s most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the ultimate accessory.

From designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases to military rucksacks, it will explore our longstanding fascination with the bag. With an exclusive look inside the world of the factory and atelier, Bags: Inside Out provides an unprecedented look at this global obsession.

Bags: Inside Out at the V&A
Grace Kelly’s departure from Hollywood (Photo By Allan Grant The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

Actress and singer Jane Birkin and the former executive chairman of Hermès Jean-Louis Dumas met by chance on a flight from Paris to London. Jane complained about how she could not find a bag suitable to carry her belongings and to fit her needs as a young mother. Dumas was inspired to sketch on an aeroplane sickness-bag a supple rectangular holdall with a burnished flap and saddle stitching. The bag was named after Jane and quickly became a sensation by appealing to women who were looking for something spacious and fashionable.

The Birkin has since become an undeniable symbol of wealth and luxury. The Birkin bag from 1984 that will feature in the exhibition was the first ever made and, unlike the ones that followed, is also equipped with a shoulder strap. Bearing her initials, it was heavily used by Jane Birkin and shows residue of adhesive from the stickers she liked to apply to it. The bag was donated by Jane Birkin for an auction to support the fight against AIDS in 1994 and was acquired in 2000 by Catherine B, Hermès and Chanel bags collector and owner of “Les 3 Marches” boutique in Paris.

Jane Birkin's Birkin, Bags: Inside Out at the V&A
Jane Birkin’s Birkin, 1984, Image courtesy of Les 3 marches de Catherine B

Lucia Savi, Curator of Bags: Inside Out at the V&A said: “The Birkin is one of the most sought-after and celebrated handbags of the 20th and 21st century. We are thrilled that we will display the very first piece made for Jane Birkin which started this long-lasting fascination. This is a truly unique bag which was used and reused by its former owner and shows signs of wear on its surface. These very personal details remind us that bags are status symbols, but also practical companions to our everyday life.”

The Mulberry Bayswater is one of the brand’s most iconic handbags, as popular today as it was when it launched in 2003. Designed by Nicholas Knightly, the Bayswater unites the very best of Mulberry’s craft skills and heritage influences. Supermodel Kate Moss was one of the bag’s first celebrity fans and has carried many different styles and colours over the years, including the example features in the exhibition.

Alexa Chung Mulberry Bags: Inside Out at the V&A
Alexa Chung by Jennifer Graylock

The Alexa, launched in 2010, was inspired by British style icon Alexa Chung who was often photographed carrying a well-loved Mulberry Elkington satchel. This caught the eye of the Mulberry design team and Chung’s effortlessly chic style influenced the shape and leather choices for this new bag. The Alexa played a key role in the revival of the ‘It Bag’ and quickly became one of the most coveted bags of a generation.

Previously announced bags that will also feature in the exhibition include a large embroidered burse used to protect the silver matrix of Elizabeth I’s Great Seal of England, a gas mask bag owned by HRH Queen Mary during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s red despatch box and the Fendi ‘Baguette’ bag worn by and stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker in one of Sex and the City’s most famous scenes.

Paris Hilton And Kim Kardashian With Marc Jacobs For Louis Vuitton ' Monogram Miroir' Gold Speedy Handbags In Sydney, Australia, Photo By Photo News International Inc, Getty Images
Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton ‘Monogram Miroir’ gold speedy handbags in Sydney, Australia, 2006. Photo by PhotoNews International Inc, Getty Images

Bags: Inside Out was due to open 21 November, but due to lockdown dates are TBC vam.ac.uk

Main image: Mulberry SS20 Campaign Image (Photographer, Mark Peckmezian)