Feature Articles

March 2014

The Charleston Museum in Charleston, SC, Offers Exhibit Focused on the Purse

The Charleston Museum in Charleston, SC, continues its accessories exhibition series with Fashion Accessories: Purses. On exhibit now through Apr. 27, 2014, the exhibit features over two hundred years of handbag history. Many reflect the popularity of the times, such as the colorful beaded bags of the 1830s, the delicate mesh bags of the 1920s or the sturdy framed bags of the early 20th century.

The handbag or purse is one of the most essential fashion accessories for women past and present. Indeed, women and men have carried bags for various purposes for centuries. Not constrained by the need to “fit” a part of the body, these bags have ranged from small to large, delicate to sturdy, and plain to ornamental. Earlier bags were homemade, made through personal creativity or by following directions and patterns in ladies’ fashion magazines, while later bags were purchased from fine clothing and accessory stores in Charleston or in fashionable destinations such as Paris.

Fashion Accessories: Purses features handbags, purses and reticules from the Charleston Museum textile collections. Some have a very specific purpose, such as tiny coin purses or a tobacco pouch, while others are much less practical in nature. Some of the earliest examples in the exhibit are an embroidered satin bag, c. 1795, made by Margaret Dick Burgess of Williamsburg, SC, and a three-sided satin tobacco pouch, embroidered with strawberries, roses and a verse, “The Best Wishes of a Friend Attend Thee”, made in the early 19th century.

Knitted and crocheted bags gained popularity throughout the 19th century, as exemplified by a finely knitted bag, 1812, probably made by Mary Alsop of Connecticut and a red and black knitted entrelac purse with metal frame, from the later 19th century. Entrelac has recently returned to the fashion scene for use in purses, hats and other fine knitted goods. Beaded bags were popular throughout the century.

The 20th century brought practical, yet pretty purses to the fore. A red velvet purse with leather side and bottom gussets, from the early 20th century, is sturdy and roomy, but still luxurious in its use of velvet. The 1920s saw the popularization of metal or mesh bags, such as a Gloria bracelet bag, 1920s, made of Lustro Pearl or pearlized mesh by the Mandalian Mfg. Co. The century wraps up with flamboyant design by Charleston designer Mary Norton. The ostrich feather bag is entitled Breakfast at Tiffany’s and it retailed under Norton’s Moo Roo / Charleston label at her shop at 316 King Street.

The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773, is America’s first museum. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located along Charleston’s Museum Mile. Holding the most extensive collection of South Carolina cultural and scientific collections in the nation, it also owns two National Historic Landmark houses, the Heyward-Washington House (1772) and the Joseph Manigault House (1803), as well as the Dill Sanctuary, a 580-acre wildlife preserve.

For further information check our SC Institutional Gallery listings, call the museum at 843-722-2996 or visit (www.charlestonmuseum.org).

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