In the episode 'Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda' from season 4 of Sex and the City, there is a scene where Samantha sets eyes on a sprightly red Birkin bag in a shop. It costs $4,000, and, to make matters worse, the waiting list to purchase it is five years. 'For a bag?!' she cries. 'It's not a bag, it's a Birkin,' replies the sales assistant. Samantha cannot stomach the waiting list, so she uses her status as a New York PR mogul to get the bag for herself, pretending it's for her celebrity client, Lucy Liu. Things go sour from there - Samantha not only loses her client, but the bag too.
The first Birkin ever made - Jane Birkin’s eponymous black leather bag, created by Hermès in 1984 - lies at the heart of a new exhibition in the V&A's fashion space. Entitled Bags: Inside Out, the exhibition features 300 bags of all shapes and sizes (for both men and women), spanning from the 16th century up until the present day - there's Winston Churchill's battered despatch box from 1921, and later, a hunky backpack from the much-hyped 2017 Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration (currently retailing online for upwards of £10,00).
The black Birkin lies in the 'Status and Identity' section of the exhibition, alongside other iconic items like John Galliano's Dior 'Saddle' bag and the jewel in the crown: the shimmering, purple Fendi 'Baguette' bag stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie in season 3 of Sex and the City. Heralded as the first ‘It bag’ in existence, 600,000 Baguette bags were reportedly sold between 1997 and 2007 - and it even has a Rizzoli tome dedicated to it.
But what exactly makes an ‘It bag?' Curator of the exhibition, Dr Lucia Savi, cites the importance of a recognisable name (often a celebrity or a place) and a distinctive shape that you can spot from far away. There's also the waiting list. 'When brands started to master this idea of the waiting list, it created this expectation, the idea that when you finally get it, you're like, "Oh my god, this is what I need,"' she says over the phone. When I visit the museum, there is even an impromptu waiting list for the 'Status and Identity' section, which comes as no surprise considering the celebrity allure of these particular handbags; after waiting patiently for five minutes while confined to the back, one woman explodes at other museum-goers to move along so that she can finally have her turn.
It makes perfect sense that an exhibition focusing on the ultimate barometer of women's taste - the handbag - would warrant such vehement reactions. Perhaps I'd forgotten just how uncomfortable the jostling, sardine-packed experience of looking at art is, thanks to a lengthy lockdown hiatus, but something about Bags: Inside Out feels especially hostile. On the day I visit the audience is 95% female, and everybody is desperate to assert their good taste. In the 'Wearable Art' section on the second floor, there is one of Jonathan Anderson's Puzzle bags for Loewe, printed with William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ pattern. ‘I have this wallpaper in my house!' exclaims one woman to another. 'That’s why it’s called the Strawberry House,' she says, to no one in particular.
The section on artist collaboration is the most interesting part of the whole exhibition; there's an 'Entomology' bag made by Damien Hirst in 2013 for Prada, featuring real and Swarovski-embroidered insects trapped in clear plexiglass, a DIY patchwork suitcase from 2004 by Tracey Emin for Longchamp embroidered with the words 'AND WHEN YOU FOUND ME / YOU SAID YOU LOVED ME,' and a bag from the immortal collab between Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton (commissioned by Marc Jacobs, Vuitton's then artistic director).
The slogan bag section features an unexpected, very different kind of 'It bag': the humble tote. Two differing options for the American and British intellectual are on display - the crisp The New Yorker tote, or the Daunt Books canvas bag. On the ancient front, a highlight of the exhibition includes a vast, monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunk from roughly 1900, which transported socialite Emilie Busbey Grigsby's lavish outfits on ocean liners during the 20th century. The trunk is ghostlike, and looks like it could be a relic from the Titanic - a fitting comparison, considering the trunk once travelled on board Olympic, Titanic's sister ship.
This trunk in particular, along with a couple of other bags, leave a lingering feeling that there is a longer story to be told - after all, it's not just the Fendi Baguette that is worthy of it's own Rizzoli tome.
Bags: Inside Out at the V&A is on until 16 January 2022.