True to its self-explanatory title, this nifty fifty is a concise history of the bag, from Gladstone’s leather Budget Box, a weathered 1860 precursor of the briefcase, and the colorful Carpetbag, apropos in this American Civil War anniversary year, to the ubiquitous Kelly bag (no explanation needed), the Queen’s Handbag (ditto) and Vivien Westwood’s 2010 Amazonlife Bowling Bag.
A photo of each bag appears opposite a one-page explainer, rich in history, detail and trivia.
Every bag has a story. Even innocent-looking bags brim with dark secrets. The cheery red Hopalong Cassidy Lunchbox (1950) – like all metal lunchboxes – was banned in 1972 because kids used it as a weapon in playground fights. The plastic shopping bag, patented in 1960 by a Swedish plastics company, proved equally menacing for the environment. (British handbag designer Anya Hindmarch tried to undo the damage in 2007 with her biodegradable canvas I’m Not a Plastic Bag tote.)
Fashion, not surprisingly, runs through the book like a leitmotif, starting in 1925 with the Deco-inflected metal mesh bag (a mechanized manufacturing process made this 19th-century luxury an affordable favorite with flappers). The 2.55, aka quilted Chanel bag (1955), the black nylon Prada bag (1978), the Fendi baguette (1997), the sculptural “accordian” handbag (2010) – the book does everything but say “collect them all.” (We love the Rosemary’s Baby photo of Mia Farrow nervously clutching a 2.55.)
Actress Jane Birkin is another leitmotif. She first appears as a young mother toting an infant Charlotte Gainsbourg and a hippie-chic woven basket bag, ca. 1970. Her iconic, wildly expensive Hermes Birkin Bag from 1984 appears a page later dubbed the Shangri-la of the bag world – “always just out of reach, glimpsed on the arms of the world’s wealthiest, most fashionable women.”
What makes Fifty an ideal hotel book? It’s easy to pick up and put down. It’s modestly decorative (every room needs a splash of yellow). And if you’re unhappy with your carry-on, we can’t think of a more enjoyable way to suss out a replacement.
Fifty Bags That Changed the World, Design Museum, $20. www.octopusbooks.co.uk