Upper Hutt arts centre Whirinaki Whare Taonga prefers to put on exhibitions that are accessible and enjoyable for the everyday person. So when presented with the opportunity to host Carry Me: 100 Years of Handbags, director Leanne Wickham knew it would be popular. Not everyone can or wants to own a high-end handbag, but who doesn’t love to look at them? “When this crossed my desk … I thought, actually, this is something that we need to do,” says Wickham.
Carry Me showcases more than 50 classic and famously luxurious handbags from throughout the ages. Well-known fashion houses are featured such as Dior, Chanel and Gucci, and highlights include bags carried by some of the most iconic fashionistas of the last century – pieces that became so well known for being worn by these women that they were renamed after them. For example, Gucci’s ‘Jackie’ bag, designed in the ’50s and originally named the ‘Constance’, was a favourite of Jackie Kennedy’s. Likewise, Hermes’ Kelly bag got its name after Grace Kelly used it to hide her pregnancy from the paparazzi. Then there’s the ‘Lady Dior’ bag, originally named ‘Chouchou’ but changed to reference Lady Diana after the Princess of Wales was presented the as-yet-unreleased Dior bag as a gift from the First Lady of France in 1995 during the opening of a Cézanne exhibition.
Wickham herself feels an affection for the ‘Lady Dior’ – she recalls attending Dresses for Humanity, a touring exhibition of 18 of Princess Diana’s dresses at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre in 2000, and being very moved by the experience. “To this day it’s one of the most inspiring and amazing exhibitions that I’ve ever been to,” she says, “and [Carry Me] reminds me of it because it features those iconic pieces that we’ve all seen in the pictures, with Grace Kelly and Jackie O and Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City, so it’s all these items that we know and recognise but we actually get to see them in person.”
The bag worn by the latter which is exhibited is the Fendi Baguette, popularised by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Fans of the series may recall a moment in season three when a mugger demanded Carrie hand over her bag, only for her to correct him with: “It’s a Baguette.” “It was the beginning of ‘It Bag Fever’,” says Wickham, adding that it was also a time when high-end designer bags were moving beyond the arms of the elite to become more accessible. “In the early history of the handbag, it was very much that the celebrities were the only ones that would be able to afford it, or the very wealthy, whereas as time went on, collectible bags became more mass produced and more affordable for the everyday fashionista.”
The bags featured in Carry Me have been sourced from private Italian collections, with the earliest dating back to the 1920s. As well as fascinating stories about the history of iconic handbags, the exhibition delves into the history of the handbag as a whole, and how it has evolved beyond being a mere fashion accessory to become a commentary on society and culture. Fashion lovers are encouraged to make the most of the exhibition by joining one of Whirinaki Whare Taonga’s ‘Gin and gelato with the curator’ events, which occur every Thursday in July and give visitors the opportunity to take a tour of Carry Me with the centre’s curator while enjoying complimentary gelato and Italian-made gin.
Carry Me: 100 Years of Handbags
Until 7 August
Whirinaki Whare Taonga