Before there were “It” Bags, women wore their belongings either inside built-in pockets or separate pouches meant to be worn underneath clothes. But while pockets and purses seem oppositional, their functionality is actually very similar.
Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function, running through March 31, 2018 at The Museum of FIT in conjunction with The Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Graduate Studies, traces this evolution of men’s and women’s pockets to the handbags we know now, with everything in between.
Displaying objects from the collection of The Museum at FIT, the exhibition looks at both men’s and women’s pockets and purses from the 18th century to the present. The show explores how lifestyle changes have evolved these items over the centuries, bringing them to life with photographs, advertisements and film clips.
Some notable items:
A needlepoint bag dating from 1920-30 contains three small cases that demonstrate the prevalence for 1920s ensemble dressing. The coordinating containers for cigarettes and face powder underscore the acceptance of women smoking and wearing makeup in public.
An ad for Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Cash and Carry” suits featured oversized hip pockets for carrying supplies, demonstrating the desire for functionality that prevailed at the outbreak of World War II. After the war, designers started featuring pockets primarily as design elements. A Molyneux dress from 1948 has eight strategically placed pockets on the hips that make the waist appear smaller, a silhouette that dominated postwar fashion.
What about literally building the handbag right into the coat? A bright green raincoat by Cashin circa 1965 features a pocket designed to look like a shoulder bag. Made from leather, canvas and Cashin’s signature twist-lock closures, the coat’s practical pocket was hands-free functionality at its best.
Eventually, handbags became objets d’art in their own right, from this Lederer cosmetics case to all the crystal-encrusted Judith Leiber bags we know so well. This 1950s Lederer purse shaped like a clock has a built-in lipstick compartment and utilizes traditional elegant materials in a novel design.
Even evening dresses sometimes required pockets, offering women a way to hold their lipstick and other small belongings without having to mar the line of the dress with a shoulder bag or be burdened with a clutch.
There are men’s items too, such as a bowler hat designed by Rod Keenan in 2006 subverts the traditional bowler by including, at the crown, a pocket made to hold a condom!