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First-ever Birkin bag to go on display in new V&A exhibition

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

15 Sep 2020

The V&A Museum’s next major fashion exhibition will be dedicated to bags and will feature the first-ever made Hermès Birkin bag owned by Jane Birkin, alongside Mulberry handbags worn by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung.

The ‘Bags: Inside Out’ exhibition opening on November 21 will showcase almost 300 pieces and will be the UK’s most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the “ultimate accessory”. It will explore the longstanding fascination with the bag, from designer handbags to despatch boxes, vanity cases, and military rucksacks.

Lucia Savi, curator of ‘Bags: Inside Out’ at the V&A, said in a statement: “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.”

V&A to place spotlight on the “ultimate accessory” the bag in new exhibition

A key highlight of the exhibition will be the first-ever made Hermès Birkin bag owned by Jane Birkin. The actress and singer met former executive chairman of Hermès Jean-Louis Dumas by chance on a flight from Paris to London and Birkin complained about how she could not find a bag suitable to carry her belongings and to fit her needs as a young mother. This inspired Dumas to sketch on an aeroplane sickness-bag a supple rectangular holdall with a burnished flap and saddle stitching.

The bag was named after the actress and the Birkin quickly became a 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 the actress 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.

There will also be two of Mulberry’s most recognisable designs on display, the Baywater, designed by Nicholas Knightly, and the Alexa, inspired by TV presenter and now designer, Alexa Chung, who at the time of launch in 2010 was often photographed carrying a well-loved Mulberry Elkington satchel.

Savi added: “The Bayswater and Alexa bags are two of Mulberry’s most recognisable and timeless designs. We are delighted to include these bags in the exhibition, owned by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung. Kate Moss was often seen carrying Mulberry bags including this Bayswater – her association with this design helped it to become the quintessential icon it is today.

“The Alexa was inspired by British broadcaster and model Alexa Chung carrying a Mulberry men's briefcase and the result was a practical and fashionable leather satchel for women. It is a modern example of how celebrities can inspire bag design.”

V&A Museum to open ‘Bags: Inside Out’ on November 21

The thematic exhibition will explore the worldwide heritage of bag from the 16th century to today, exploring the function, status, and craftsmanship of the accessory. The first section will be dedicated to examining bags as practical objects designed to hold our belongings, featuring holiday outfits to confidential documents, make-up to money, and even gas masks. Moving onto status and identity, looking at the central role of the bag in celebrity culture as well as its notoriety amongst the political and societal elite, and the rise of the ‘It bag’ phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before concluding with the design and making process from sketch to sample, sewing to selling.

Other highlights will 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.

In addition, there will be designs by Chanel, Stella McCartney, Thom Browne, Anya Hindmarch, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and Dior.

The ‘Bags: Inside Out’ exhibition, which was originally scheduled for April, will open on November 21.

Images: courtesy of the V&A Museum; Main image - Mike Daines, Shutterstock; Kate Moss - Beretta Sims, Shutterstock; Birkin image - Les 3 marches de Catherine B; and Alexa Chung - Jennifer Graylock, Shutterstock