Culture Clutch: Museum of the Handbag Opens in Seoul

Hermes Red Alligator Birkin Bag
Source: Hermes
Hermes Red Alligator Birkin Bag

In Garosu-gil, an upmarket district of Seoul where designer stores line the leafy boulevards, “It” bags are an obvious declaration of South Korea’s love affair with all things luxury. For proof look no further than Asia’s first museum dedicated to handbags, opening on July 19.

Built by the Seoul-based luxury bag producer Simone, the Simone Handbag Museum is part of a new 10-floor building called Bagstage, in the shape of a top handle shopper and dedicated to the accessory.

It houses a shop selling bag materials; workshops where new Korean designers can work rent-free; a section where craftsmen will produce bags; and two shops, including a new multi-brand handbag store from Simone, which will also sell the company’s new bag line, 0914. However, the museum itself goes well beyond designer arm candy, looking back over 500 years to explore the origins of the accessory.

“Handbags and accessories have usually played only a supporting role in fashion exhibitions,” says Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator for the museum at FIT. “It is terrific news that there is a new handbag museum in Korea. I look forward to seeing it because fashions in handbags have changed dramatically over time.”

Simone founder and chief executive Kenny Park says: “People are always asking me about the history of bags. I came up with the idea of having a professional museum where people can see the past and the future of handbags. I wanted the east meets west version but there was not enough material available in Asia so for now we have half of the world represented.”

The museum isn’t the only cultural shrine to accessories – there is the Tassenmuseum or Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and the Ferragamo museum in Florence. However, not only is this the only one actually shaped like a bag but Simone has spent about £1m acquiring the collection. The most expensive item is a red alligator skin Birkin from 1998 (£40,000) while an art nouveau, flower motif, gold change purse from Boucheron (1880) costs $40,000.

Indeed, the 300 bags, selected with a focus on western history, show an intriguing diversity. The earliest exhibit is a knitted purse from 1550, made of silk, metal and thread. There are also sweetmeat purses, which were used to carry sachets to mask body odours, as well as purses, pockets, bourses, pouches and aumonieres – small leather drawstring purses or alms purses – totes, clutches, and vanity cases. The collection ends with a Céline tote from spring/summer 2012.

The museum, which has a historical gallery, a contemporary gallery and one for temporary shows, was put together by Judith Clark, who is a reader in fashion and museology at the London College of Fashion and has curated exhibitions such as Spectres (MoMu 2004, V&A 2005), Anna Piaggi: Fashion-ology (V&A 2006) and Diana Vreeland: After Diana Vreeland (Palazzo Fortuny Venice 2012).

Bespoke mannequins – two of which were made by milliner Stephen Jones – focus on gesture and drawing the eye towards the bag. “What’s new here are the mannequins,” Clark says. “Bags contextualise gesture. Gesture is specific to time. Think of the crunched shoulder.” The collection also reveals the way in which holding habits have changed: bags that women could carry between their fingers or over their arms first became popular after fashions changed at the time of the French Revolution, around 1790.

In the historical gallery, objects are displayed in dark wood-framed cupboards that evoke Victorian cabinets of curiosities, alongside mannequins and drawers: some containing lingerie bags that belonged to Queen Marie of Hanover. On the mannequins, pieces include a belt bag from circa 1870, made in blue velvet and silver carvings, and a British embroidered pocket from 1760. A silver-and-pearl needle case, circa 1900, belonged to the Argentine socialite María Luisa Unzué de Aldao and was purchased in New York for £27,000.

On the contemporary floor, bags displayed on white powder-coated shelves and presented in tissue-lined grey boxes include Alexander McQueen’s 2010 leather Union Jack clutch; a Martin Margiela glove bag, on loan from MoMu in Antwerp; a Prada rucksack from the 1980s; and, from 1910, a coin purse in silver-plated nickel. A British muff bag from the 1950s is made from astrakhan, suede and plastic, and a 1970s clutch resembles a rolled up magazine.

Then, pushing the boundaries of what can really be considered a handbag, is a cardboard box with a string designed to contain a British gas mask. Clark says, “If bags reflect back to our basic needs – ‘what we cannot leave the house without,’ – then this is a very poignant illustration of a different essential need. All bags are really boxes on a string and this makes it literal. By being included it questions what purpose the others are serving.”

Park says: “My hope is that anyone who is interested in fashion, especially handbags, will leave the museum with a handbag in their hearts ... or on their arm.”