The exhibition 'Bagism: We Are All in the Same Bag!' showcases historical pieces and iconic handbags, as well as creations by contemporary Chinese artists. Photo/China Daily
A Shanghai art museum puts handbags on a pedestal in a bid to mirror social change
“Bagism: We Are All in the Same Bag!” is the name of an exhibition at the chi K11 Art Museum in Shanghai and not quite what John Lennon and Yoko Ono had in mind when they coined the term in 1969. On display through October 10 are more than 300 handbags dating back 400 years.
Celebrity-owned totes are represented among the antiques, historical pieces and very modern bags created by 15 contemporary artists. If Lennon and Ono, in the midst of their peace campaign, were trying to show the futility of race, class and gender stereotyping, well, at least the Shanghai show is diverse in its wares.
Co-curator Penny Liu says she utilised the term “bagism” to address the social and cultural significance of bags. She and Frenchwoman Elisabeth Azoulay have borrowed handbags from more than 70 museums and private collections around the world, including the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Palais Princier de Monaco and the Simone Handbag Museum of Seoul. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermes have also contributed pieces.
Azoulay notes that the handbag first appeared as an accessory in the 1600s, at the beginning of the Renaissance. “Aristocratic people wanted to keep their secrets,” she says, meaning their political correspondence, love letters and so on.
The earliest bags were made of fine fabric with lots of embroidery, jewellery, lace and other decorations, reflecting the owner’s wealth and status. But when the French Revolution made everyone equal, men began relying on pockets integrated into their garments, leaving women holding the bag, as it were.
In modern times women began wearing less jewellery, hats and gloves and hid less behind fans or umbrellas. The handbag is a “survivor of the period”, Azoulay says, in fact more in demand than ever as women entered the workforce and had to travel more.
In terms of standout bags, Azoulay says, French couturier Coco Chanel was the first to give a bag a name. In February 1955 when she was 72 years old, she designed the “2.55”, so designated for the month and year.
Only in the early 20th century did firmer, more durable leather begin replacing silk and other fabrics as the bag material of choice, and Chanel used quilted leather and lambskin in hers, inspired by the jackets worn by stable hands – and the stained-glass windows she remembered from convent school.
More “iconic” bags followed, often named after royals or celebrities, such as the Kelly bag honouring Princess Grace (nee Kelly) of Monaco.
In recent decades, as clothing became more unisex and featured less colour and decoration, the handbag was the holdout in signifying social status and style choices. The luxury fashion brands began producing “it bags” bearing their logos. “You can make a good impression with a nice bag even if you wear cheap clothes!” Azoulay says.
And, as handbags became more expressive, new possibilities arose. Artists participated in designing them, such as surrealist master Salvador Dali to acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, samples of whose work is included in the exhibition. You can even see a bag used by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Among the contemporary artists featured are Zhang Enli and Xu Zhen and younger talents Pixie Liao and Peng Wei. They’ve used various media and styles, projecting the handbag as a vessel for desire, a metaphor for the human existence, even a demonstration of values and ideas.
K11 Art Mall founder Adrian Cheng says the exhibition is likely to trigger a trend in fashion-and-art crossover shows. “We hope people get inspired to know more and talk more about the concept of art and the history of fashion design and see the relationship between the two, and how it inspires Chinese contemporary artists and society.”