San Diego purse exhibit has women’s history in the bag

Hey ladies, raise your hand if you have a love-hate relationship with your purse. Unless your arm is too sore from carrying your purse. In which case, wave your foot.

Whether you love it because it’s pretty and matches your shoes, or you loathe it because it is a “Hoarders” episode with handles, there is no escaping the strange, symbiotic relationship women have with their handbags. Without us, they are merely extras on the stage of life. Attractive, but not necessary. Without them, we are up a creek without a paddle, lipstick or Altoids.

The fact is, we need each other. So you and your bottomless friend should make a date to visit the Women’s Museum of California in Liberty Station, where a new exhibit dedicated to handbags will be on display through July 2. With its cases full of beaded beauties, fringed finds and woven wonders, “One Hundred Years of One Hundred Handbags” is a tribute to these necessary accessories and to the women who carried them.

“Purses give you a portal into women’s lives at the time,” said museum director Diane Peabody Straw. “Our mission is to always tell women’s stories, and I think this collection is a reflection of that.”

The exhibit won’t make your purse-burden feel lighter, but it will put your load into historical perspective. Except for that Ziploc full of ancient goldfish crackers lurking at the bottom. There is really no excuse for that. Happy browsing!

Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. General admission is $5. Senior- and student-admission is $3. The Women’s Museum of California: 1730 Historic Decatur Road, Barracks 16, Liberty Station. 619.233.7963 or

Handbags 101

Like manna from fashion heaven, the bags dropped into the museum’s lap in January. All of the purses came from Jean Nemer, a Chicago native now living in San Diego, Nemer donated her entire well-preserved collection to the museum, including two vintage bags owned by her grandmother, Anna Larsen. There is a photograph of the stylish Grandmother Larsen in the exhibit’s first glass case. It is displayed next to the fan that she is holding in the photo.

“We are so cramped for space in our archives, we were tempted not to accept the collection,” Straw said. “But the collections manager and I went to Jean’s house, and she had everything laid out. When we saw the variety and the continuity, and we saw how well-documented everything was, it was a no-brainer to take it.”

The handbag timeline starts with small, beaded bags from the 1880’s and ends with a blazingly bright Art Nouveau clutch from 1960. In between there are tiny ring bags a gal could dangle from her finger, purses made from abalone shells, purses with swingy flapper fringe and gold-mesh glamour bags from the 1950’s. They are all gorgeous and timeless, with nary a trace of ink, gum or water-bottle leakage in sight.

“The women who carried these bags were women of a certain class,” said Melissa Jones, the museum’s marketing director. “These women were going out at night. They were going to the theater and to social events. These aren’t the purses you take to work.”

Tales from the purse

Unlike today’s mega-totes, in which a woman can haul enough gear to outfit a South Pole expedition and still have room for the regulation Too Many Lip Balms, purses of the past were tiny. Whether they were covered with steel-cut beads or made of hand-tooled leather, the collection’s oldest bags are just big enough to carry what women were allowed to carry. And it wasn’t much.

“The smaller purses from the mid 1800’s are a reflection of the limited place women had in society,” Straw said. “Some of the purses are just big enough to carry a house key. You wouldn’t carry money, because the men had the money. You wouldn’t carry make-up, because no woman would be seen putting on make-up in public.

“The purses get a little bigger later in this time period. As more people move from farms to cities, women are not as isolated. They are planning outings with friends, and their lives are more similar to the way we live today.”

If the petite pouches of the the 1800’smake you grateful for your big life and the massive bag it demands, the bags from the 1920’s will send that smile packing. The cases devoted to the Roaring Twenties are a rainbow riot of gleaming glass-beaded purses dripping with swinging fringe and dizzying possibilities. You will covet these bags and the lives that came with the territory.

“Seeing how these flapper purses reflect the lifestyle is fascinating to me,” Straw said, admiring an emerald-green bag whose handles could double as bracelets. “Women were taking on an authenticity and living their lives outside of what society expected of them. They cared about movement and breaking free. You could drape these bags over an arm, carry your cocktail and dance and have a ball.”

Convenience comes to the table in the 1930’s with the introduction of the zipper. That decade also brought an early version of today’s “Flash Fashion,” as the two women who started the LuJean Inc. bag company began making affordable versions of European purses. The collection’s red-velvet LuJean clutch looks like a Valentine, but it is big enough for a wallet, hankie and maybe a bit of real life.

“You can tell a lot about a person by looking in her purse,” Jones said. “Is she a mom? Does she work? Is she a gum-chewer? Does she keep all of her receipts stuffed at the bottom like me? There is a lot of intimacy there.”

Best of the bags

Jones’ favorite exhibit item is the hand-tooled brown leather purse from 1918, one of the few leather bags in the collection. Straw is partial to the white-beaded purse from the 1940’s that she would have happily carried at her own wedding. I was taken with the ingenious mesh “vanity purses” from 1910, which were topped with compacts and outfitted with a comb, mirror, rouge, powder and powder puff.

But whether you are mooning over the classy tapestry bags, the slinky chain-link numbers, or the gauzy Dresden mesh bags with the stunning Art Deco clasps, make sure you make time for a visit to “Suffragette Alley.” There, you will find the museum’s permanent tribute to the pioneering women who attended the Seneca Falls, N.Y., women’s rights convention in 1848, rallied for equal pay for equal work in San Diego in 1910, and marched in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., bustles and all.

Without them, there wouldn’t be a purse big enough to hold the baggage we’d be carrying now.
Twitter: @karla_peterson