Artscape
9:27 am
Mon December 13, 2010

At MOHAI, it's all about the purse

I’m one of those people who carries a bulging, heavy handbag, crammed with so much stuff that I can’t always find my cellphone. But heavy or not, it’s my attempt at making a fashon statement. It’s the color of a tangerine.

Walk into the galleries at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI)and it’s impossible not to size up your purse.

Over here, from the '30s, a bag made out of Bakelite is the color of butterscotch. And from the 1990s, stylish Prada and Kate Spade bags.

There’s a century’s worth of purses, made out of sealskin, clam shells, cantaloupe seeds, even cigarette wrappers and aluminum can tabs. Purses meant to be worn under clothes or proudly shown off.

And purses from the turn of the century that weren’t even meant for one’s arm.

"This very small mesh bag would have been worn around the woman’s finger. And I can imagine only a coin or two could be placed in there," says Tracy Buck, the museum’s textile specialist. She’s young, petite and wears white gloves so she can handle some of these 100-year-old items.  

Most of the purses here are part of a travelling collection from all over the country, curated by a group out of San Francisco.  But the museum has also included about 100 purses from its own collection, like a flowered item handmade and owned by Mary Denny, one of Seattle’s first settlers.

Buck picks up one of the most popular purses from the 1880s. It’s blue with steel beads and it looks a bit like an ascot. She agrees the purse looks kind of like a tie.

"You wouldn’t think, by looking at it, that it’s a bag at all," she says. "But actually it has two slits on the top of here. And you slide the ring down and it closes off the opening. And it’s called a miser’s bag because the person who was using it would literally have to pinch the penny to pull it out."

At this show, you can spend hours marveling at the workmanship on display. But you'll also get a history lesson on the role of women throughout the decades, Buck explains.

"These are some things a woman would have carried with her everyday. They are very much a part of her life and very much part of what she did and in a way, who she was and how she expressed herself."

And in the 1900s, it appears women saw themselves as delicate creatures, given the tiny, dainty purses they carried.

"They would have been used for maybe change or keys or just a few simple necessities."

The purses look almost like pieces of jewelry, with little functionality.

But then Buck shows a purse that’s both. It’s a collection of giant silver charms on a chain, meant to be worn around one’s waist.

"There’s a mirror, a pill box, a pencil and a household seal that she would have used for letters. And then that small book you see, those are ivory pages that lists everyday of the week so she could use the pencil and write down her notes for the day or the shopping list or whatever she needed."

A woman couldn't fit make-up into her purse because such items weren't carried in public back then.

"In the '20s, actually, (the purses) have compacts built into the lid of the purse, and that marks the first time when it was considered socially acceptable for women to touch their makeup in public," Buck says.

What women could or could not do over the decades is the history lesson learned as you walk through this show.  

Like women working in factories during WWII.

"You’ll see that these bags are quite large compared to the early bags. They were carrying a lot more in their bags for their daily lives, maybe they’d put their lunch to snack on," Buck explains.

And women taking a stand for equal rights in the 1970s.

"This bag was made out of a pair of overalls and decorated with political buttons," Buck points out.

In the 1980s, so-called "superwomen" juggled motherhood with careers, lugging purses as big as tote bags.

"You can see the contents of these purses include everything from things to keep the kids happy: PEZ dispensers and rattles. And also things that a woman would need for her own day. Blue eye shadow, of course."

Looking at the purses really takes you to a different time and a different era.

"One of the points that the show makes is that women used to transition from a daytime bag to an evening bag and they used to have different bags that would match their gloves and their shoes and their outfits for any particular day. If you think about shifting everything from one bag to the next that seems like a lot of work," Buck says. "So it’s really funny to think about how times have changed."

What will purses like look over the next 100 years as technology keeps changing our lives?

No matter how smart the smartphones become, no matter how crammed coat pockets get with stuff, it's hard to imagine women gives up their handbags.