Jun 10, 2008
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Exhibition of historic handbags, the new collectables

Jun 10, 2008

TRIESTE, Italy, June 10, 2008 (AFP) - Handbags are the new jewellery, the New York Times recently noted, and with vintage models fetching increasingly high prices at auction, they are also becoming eminently collectable.

Louis Vuitton handbags - Photo : Andrew H. Walker/AFP

An exhibition of historic handbags at the romantic Castello di Duino, ancestral home of the Von Thurn und Taxis family on the Adriatic near Trieste, offers a privileged oversight of the evolution of what has become a woman's most indispensable accessory.

Scattered in showcases throughout the castle and on the top floor are bags from the 1800s to the present day, including rare, early examples of so-called miser's purses, with drawstring necks, designed to be hung from a belt.

But it is from the 1900s that the handbag as we know it came into being, reflecting the personal taste of the wearer and as much of an individual statement as a calling card.

Particularly dazzling are the delicious "minaudieres" -- tiny evening bags in lacquered metal or tortoiseshell or silk, often custom-made -- from the 1920s and 1930s.

The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb which spawned a mania for all things Egyptian, the opening up of Japan to Europe, and Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes", are all reflected in the decorations of the handbags of the day in a sudden profusion of sphinxes, elephants, palm trees and oriental motifs.

Their inner structure was similarly influenced by the new importance of cosmetics, with separate compartments for lipstick and powder -- confirming the bag's new position as a "container of private worlds in public places," to quote the British fashion historian Claire Wilcox.

The most unusual and fascinating bags on show at Duino, which have all come from a private collection, are American, vintage 1940s and 1950s.

In the immediate post-war years, when leather and metal were expensive and in short supply, recently invented plastics like Bakelite, Lucite and other synthetic materials came into their own. Hollywood stars lent them celebrity status, like the footballers' wives of today. It suddenly became all the vogue to sport a plastic handbag.

Acrylics were practical, because they could be textured and patterned to imitate expensive leather, snakeskin or ivory at a fraction of the price, therefore more affordable for the young.

The verve and originality of creations from the era puts today's brash "brag-bags" in the shade. Bakelite lent itself to rigid shapes from beehives to cylinders, teapots and buckets, embellished with rhinestones, pearls and shells, while also turning up as novelty clasps like a Scottie dog on a lizard skin clutch, or a mouse on a rugged leather reticule.

See-through Lucite was even more ahead of its time, exposing the bag's contents to external scrutiny.

It was not to last. By the 1960s plastics were firmly out of fashion, although 50 years later rare examples are going for 900 dollars under the hammer, a far cry from their original retail price of as little as five dollars.

The exhibition is open until November. Further information from www.castellodiduino.itby Sarah Shard

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