The history of the bag | Exhibition | Museum of Bags Amsterdam

Your bag reflects the given period of time

Permanent exhibition
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DAILY 10:00 - 17:00

Each bag tells its own story. It gives information about the fashion trends, art, techniques and customs in a given period of time.

The bags that you use on a daily basis are all suited for specific occasions. A polyester gym bag, a leather handbag for the office and a glitzy evening bag for a party. And sometimes you might purchase a bag because a certain brand or model are all the rage. When you look at the history of the bag, you will find that its development has been largely influenced by trends in art, fashion and society. Embark on a journey of discovery through the history of the bag at the Museum of Bags Amsterdam.

Chanel bag on display
Display with bags in the Museum of Bags and Purses

Discoveries to be made: from purse on a chatelaine…

In the sixteenth century, people used bags and purses to carry money and other personal belongings. People used bags with frames, leather purses and pouch-like purses. These were carried mainly on the belt or the waistband. In plain or luxurious versions, depending on the wealth of the owner. The oldest bag in the Museum of Bags Amsterdam is a sixteenth century men’s bag made of goat leather with a metal frame. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, men started to wear their personal belongings in the pockets of their clothes. Pockets in clothes were a new development in fashion and they ended up making the men’s bag largely redundant. As of the sixteenth century, women started to wear their bags and purses on a hook with chains on their belts: the chatelaines. At the same time, many bags and purses were made for special occasions such as bridal bags, alms purses and gaming purses.

small bags on display

…to the leather handbag

Loose pockets were another early representation of the handbag. These pockets were made of fabric and were worn on a ribbon tied around the waist under the skirt. Basically where women today would wear a belt bag or a fanny pack. The loose pockets started to disappear at the end of the eighteenth century: under the influence of fashion trends, dresses made of flimsy fabric became stylish and loose pockets simply could no longer be worn invisibly under these dresses. From then on, the contents of the loose pockets were worn in the real predecessor of the handbag: the réticule. The réticule was the IT-bag of that time. As of the mid nineteenth century, bead bags and chain mail bags became a la mode. Chain mail is a kind of armour made from small metal rings joined together so that they look like cloth. Bead bags are made of thousands of beads that were either embroidered, knitted, woven or laced. The introduction of travelling by steamboat and train in the eighteenth century created the need for suitcases, trunks and travel bags. Because of its sturdiness, leather became the material du jour for travel bags. And the leather hand luggage used on boats and trains thus became the archetype for today’s leather handbag.

Multiple small, hanging handbags

New materials and women’s liberation

The introduction of new technologies during the industrial revolution made it possible to produce materials and products at a much faster pace. New materials such as papier mache, iron and grinded steal were used to make bags. In the thirties of the twentieth century, plastic was introduced as a material for handbags and it became popular among designers due to its versatility in terms of shape and colour. At the beginning of the twentieth century women possessed a handbag for every occasion: bags for the daytime and evening bags for going to the opera. The in material for the daytime bag became leather. Women’s liberation stimulated the participation in employment of women and this created the need for a practical handbag. In the evening women ditched their leather bag for a vanity case or minaudière. After the Great War, women’s liberation and the popularity of female movie stars spurred the sales figures of makeup. This created the need for bags and pouches specifically designed for carrying makeup.

The bag as a rapidly changing fashion statement

Today, the bag is a fashion statement that changes every season and the large globally operating fashion brands dictate the trends. From functional design the bag has developed into a style icon. Bags are available in a choice of materials: from leather and silk to plastic, metal and vegan leather. An important difference compared to the past is that fashion trends last a shorter period of time: fast fashion has become the norm. Many designers draw inspiration from the past. They give a historic twist to a modern bag: fast fashion takes notes from slow fashion. An example is Choé’s Nile bag: with its metal ring the bag could easily be attached to an 18th century chatelaine!

What people are saying

I would recommend a stopover for any fan of purses!
One woman's acquiring a handbag led to a huge collection. Margaret Thatcher, Liz Taylor and Hillary Clinton's bags are all here.
"Loved this museum!"
Really gorgeous handbags with explanations. Fab restaurant there too and a tea shop.
"Spectacular place"

Discover items in this collection