The Hermès travel bag (pictured here in white) was made world-famous by Grace Kelly. The actress and Princess of Monaco carried the bag so often that it was named after her in 1956. Since then the "Kelly Bag" has achieved cult status. It's part of an exhibition in the Bavarian National Museum about handbags over the past 500 years of Europe's cultural history.
The history of handbags begins in the 16th century when bags had small pouches to separate different currencies. That was necessary because every region and big city had its own coins. Women kept their craft materials and personal belongings in work bags made from embroidered silk fitted to a basket for stability.
Handbag research isn't easy, says Johannes Pietsch, a specialist in costume history and curator of the exhibition in Munich. Lots of different sources have to be compared in order to establish the period and purpose for which the bags were used. As was standard for the aristocracy, the name of the owner was printed on the bag - in this case Maximilian, Count von Montgelas (1759-1838).
The exhibition includes objects like paintings and sculptures depicting the function of different bags and how they were carried. The considerable influence technological developments had on fashion in the 17th century is also made clear. On account of the expansion of the postal network, flat letter-sized wallets were made with multiple pockets made from leather or silk and often embroidered.
Following the French Revolution, the hooped skirts that women hid their purses under were done away with. Women began to wear narrow dresses and carried bags in their hands. The handle bags of the 18th and 19th centuries look surprisingly modern. The reticule or "Pompadour," a delicate pouch carried with a chain around the wrist, was also popular.
Until the French Revolution, men carried handbags just like women. Men's fashion then became slicker and handbags became something just for women. Today, along with laptop cases and backpacks, handbags for men are also back in fashion, Pietsch says: "Men recognize that it's practical to be able to carry things with them. Men's handbags could even become fashion accessories."
In the 19th century, modes of travel changed with the railway network. People needed a large, stable bag since suitcases were stored in luggage wagons and women preferred to keep their handbags with them. Marlene Dietrich was a famous handbag carrier and recognized that they could also be used to make a statement. Many of her handbags are on display in the exhibition.
In the 1970s it was fashionable to carry a bag that looked like a rolled-up magazine with handles. They were made from the laminated covers of magazines. "These bags were very popular. When women see this bag in the exhibition they often recall owning one themselves," Pietsch says.
Handbags are supposed to be functional, but there are also extravagant designer models and one-of-a-kind editions made by fashion houses like Christian Dior, Cartier and Christian Lacroix. Some handbags have also become collector's items. Princess Gloria von Thurn and Taxis owns a large collection of handbags, including this silk bag from Christian Lacroix.
In February 1955, Coco Chanel launched one of the most famous handbag models of all time - the Chanel 2.55. The original version is pictured here. Whether famed, ordinary, minimal or extravagant, the exhibition shows that handbags encase little pieces of history.
The British Duchess of Cambridge also carries a handbag with a history. As the successor to letter wallets, the clutch is a small handbag without handles carried in the hand or under one arm. In the 1920s, the clutch suited the ideal of the androgynous, slim woman and is currently enjoying a fashion revival.
Handbags are more about status and fashion than practicality. But have they always been that way? The Bavarian National Museum opens up women's most intimate possession and shares 500 years of handbag history.