The unofficial Queen of handbags is not a celebrity, nor is she a fashion designer or a stylist to the stars. She is a wonderfully warm, understatedly stylish and well, “normal” Dutch woman, who just happens to be in charge of the world’s largest collection of handbags and purses. Her name is Sigrid Ivo and she is the Curator of the Tassenmuseum Hendrijke Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam.
A few weekends ago I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with Sigrid at the Tassenmuseum which can be found in one of Amsterdam’s iconic and sought after 17th century houses which line the Herengracht, one of the city’s three main ring canals. I learnt that this is actually the collection’s second home, the first being Sigrid’s childhood home. You see, Sigrid is in fact the guardian of the collection of over 4000 bags and purses, which used to be the private collection of her parents but is now owned by the museum. I suppose, in fact, that that actually makes her more a princess than a queeen? Either way, she’s certainly bag royalty and as I soon found out, is extremely knowledgable and passionate about her subject.
As I follow the “keep it simple” school of interviewing, my first and most obvious question was how did it all began?
Of course, it started with one bag…
An antique leather and tortoiseshell purse decorated in silver, which Sigrid’s mother stumbled upon, of all places, at an antiques market in Norwich, East Anglia, England. Hendrijke Ivo, whose name is given to the museum, and her husband Heinz were avid collectors of silver antiques so were no strangers to the concept of unearthing antiquities and selling them on to be loved once more and yes, to also make a little profit. However, once this early 19th century tortoiseshell bag landed in Hendrijke’s hands more than 30 years ago, it wasn’t something she wanted to part with and indeed she was compelled to learn, appreciate and collect more. Her collection grew to include bags from as long ago as the 16th century and she developed a deep interest in the materials, technology and styles that influenced the changing shape and structure of bags over the years.
In 1996 Hendrijke put her collection on display using the vacant rooms that her grown up children had left behind them after they moved out of the family home in Amstelveen, a suburb of Amsterdam. The museum, which grew into a family business, became popular with bag enthusiasts the world over but of course wasn’t attracting the busy tourist market that flowed through Amsterdam’s centre. And then came that moment that every woman dreads; when she realises defeatedly that it’s true – she does have too many bags and she’s running out of storage. However, in Hendrijke’s case a clear out and run to the charity shop was completely out of the question. Instead, she and her daughter Sigrid, started looking for a new home for the collection that was, of course, still growing.
It was at this point in the story, after draining my tea cup in the charming tea rooms which greet visitors as they exit the museum, that Sigrid invited me to take a tour of the museum with her. Expecting her to show me the start, the end and maybe a couple of her favourite bags in between I was thoroughly surprised and pleased to spend the next few hours with Sigrid as she talked me through the three floors of exhibitions in great detail, pausing at a number of bags that she talked about intricately, as if knowing much more than just their history and material make-up. They almost seemed like old friends she was reminiscing about.
Sigrid explained how the first bags came to be created and she showed me the oldest one in the collection, which believe it or not was most likely a “man bag” as it was men that first had the real need and the idea to carry their belongings altogether in a bag which was attached to their belt buckle.
I was then educated on how, as with most fashions in centuries gone by, bags were originally a luxury item for the upper class of society and it would often take many decades before the same style of bag and purse became affordable to the working class, if this happened at all. I learnt that the first hundred years of bags saw designs in distinct shapes and sizes, specifically used to hold and transport certain items as opposed to being a general carrier for all items like the deep, scuffed-leather cauldron of a handbag that I like to sling over my shoulder.
There were delicately hand sewn 18th century beaded purses for papers and enveloppes to write their all-important letters (think of these as the iPhone cases of their time), woven bridal bags decorated specifically for the happy couple and contained the wedding present (i.e. money!), 19th century leather tobacco pouches, teeny tiny coin boxes (because the coins then were teeny tiny too) and a fine array of the many shapes, styles and materials of bags made popular throughout the 20th century thanks to great advances in technology and industry, not least synthetic fibres and mass production.
Did you know that “reticule” the word for a historical small strapless and often drawstring bag used by women, comes from the French for ridiculous, seeing as that’s what they thought it was to have a hand held bag? Neither did I but I’m mighty glad the clutch prevailed as it’s my favourite style of bag.
Did you also know that, sadly, until fairly recently across the world bags were being made from crocodile, ivory, elephant, lizard, ostrich, leopard, armadillo, sting ray and snake? Sigrid explained that only too often she hears from women wishing to donate their bags to the museum because they are so uncomfortable still holding on to bags made from endangered animals.
Still hardly pushing the interview to any level of revelation, I asked Sigrid which bag in the collection was her favourite. She showed me a beautifully simple, yet striking, blue, black and silver clutch bag in art deco style. I had to say it was instantly one of my favourites too. (Later when I placed Sigrid’s business card into a pocket of my diary I noticed a photo of this bag on it’s back and smiled).
There were many designer donations in the museum, like those from Prada, Lulu Guinness and Stella McCartney. It was while showing me these designer offerings Sigrid made it very clear that as worthy as these bags are it was the up and coming independent designers and the innovative technology behind old and new bags that keeps her so fascinated and keen to continue collecting. I can certainly appreciate this, but here’s no denying that both Sigrid and I find the magic bond between a woman and her handbag a precious and unifying one; you just don’t need to explain it another woman – we all get it.
This was made very clear as she told me a story about how when she gave a lecture at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, she happened to mention that the collection was lacking an original Kelly bag by the legendary designer, Hermès. After her presentation she was approached by a member of the audience who explained that she had a real Kelly bag and she promptly offered it to Sigrid to be displayed in the museum. I smiled with Sigrid as she commented on her good fortune and the generosity of others who have beautiful bags that they wish to share with the world. She then leaned in closer and with a jovial grin said to me “We’re still missing the Birkin, you know. I’d love to add the Birkin to the collection so, you know, feel free to put that in your article,”
Well, Sigrid, Your Majesty, after such a wonderful afternoon learning more about the fascinating history of bags that I thought I ever could, it’s the very least I could do.
This post was written by Frankie Thompson who was a Travelette from 2012 – 2015. Originally from London, UK, Frankie was nomadic for several years before settling in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she lives with her Australian partner and baby boy. She spends her time buying vintage dresses, riding a rusty old bike around the canals and writing books inspired by her travels. Frankie blogs about travel, writing and motherhood at As the Bird flies blog.Tweet