Carry On at The Museum at FIT’s Student Exhibition “Pockets to Purses: Form + Function”

“Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function” is a new exhibition organized by graduate students in FIT’s MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies on view now through March 31st at the Museum at FIT. The exhibition explores the historical relationship between ways of carrying one’s essentials as well as the interconnection between masculine and feminine uses and designs.

18th century man’s waistcoat with pocket, Fashion Plate c. 1778-1787,
woman’s pocket worn tied at waist under a full skirt

A man’s 18th century waistcoat or jacket would typically feature an easily accessible embroidered pocket however it was limited as to what could be carried without causing a break in the garment’s tailored lines. By contrast women’s voluminous skirts hid detached pockets or cloth bags which were tied around their waists — these bags could hold domestic items such as sewing utensils or even a bag of oranges. Since they were camouflaged under a loose silhouette they would not create a bulge. One of the fashion plates featured here depicts a ruffled slit in an overskirt marking the spot of access through the many layers of fabric.

Blue waistcoat –Embroidered watch pocket on a 1878 bodice mirrors its purpose as a decorative pocket watch holder

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteeth century silhouettes changed and narrowed. A small purse called a reticule, carried on the wrist came into fashion. Featured here is one such item derived from a man’s waistcoat which has been re-purposed, as silk was such a precious material of the time — marking an early example of sustainable fashion.

Embroidered purse — Carpet bag, fashion plate of women waiting for a train

As middle and upper class women enjoyed an increase in leisure time, many turned to making handcrafted, knitted and crocheted bags for the use of both men and women — often these were gifted to loved ones. Traveling with heavy trunks gave way to “Mary Poppins”- style carpet bags which were popular with both sexes.

Coat made for Prince of Wales with train ticket pocket

Men’s coats were often made with a special ticket pocket for their commuter train ticket. Rules were changing for women — by the early twentieth century both smoking and applying makeup were acceptable behavior and purses adapted. An example featured here includes a 1925 accessory set with a coin purse, cigarette case and cosmetic compact coordinate with an evening bag. A whimsical clock bag also features a built-in lipstick on its flip side.

Josephine Baker Photo (upper left), Needlepoint bag with cosmetic accessories (in case) upper right — Cartier Bag

Purses started to be looked upon as an accessory as important as jewelry — witnessed here with a 1930 Cartier evening bag of wool needlepoint and suede as well as a jade and rock crystal closure. A 1928 photo of Josephine Baker displaying her decorative evening clutch on a Paris restaurant table indicates that handbags had become symbols of status and style.

Schiaparelli illustration

Mid twentieth-century fashion designers began to feature pockets as a design feature including a Molyneux houndstooth wool dress circa 1948. This dress has the “new look” slimmer belted waist offset by ornamental hip pockets emphasizing the silhouette. A fashion illustration for Schiaparelli’s “Cash and Carry” line reads “In Paris, these days, one goes oneself to market, one often bicycles, one needs pockets, one needs bicycle bloomers. Schiaparelli provides both on these two new suits — shown above at the famous marketplace, “Les Halles.” These pockets almost resemble saddle bags

Left — Claire McCardell dress photo by Louise Dahl Wolfe, Bonnie Cashin Raincoat with Trompe l’oeil design, 1960’s leather bags

Form and function are also combined with stylish, large pocketed garments by Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin (who riffed off of the Schiaparelli line with her own “Cashin Carry”). Her sketch of one such 1969 coat with a “built-in” canvas/leather purse/pocket and trademark twist lock closure reads “Look ma, no hands! Let your coat carry your bag.”

Lower left – Schiaparelli illustration, center – Molyneux dress,
right – Dior shoes and bag, Chanel 2.55 bag

In the late twentieth century, the concept of the status bag that we know today offered opportunities for branding. A mid ’50’s Christian Dior evening set of floral silk handbag and shoes meant to match a particular ensemble from the collection sits next to an early ’60’s Chanel 2.55 black quilted, gold chained leather bag, advertised as a hands-free option, meant to go from day to evening with “practical versatility.”

Top left – Mary Ping, 2003, Hermes Kelly Bag 2000, Louis Vuitton Murakami Speedy bag 2003, The New Yorker Tote, Judith Leiber evening bags

Other examples of status bags include the Hermes Kelly bag, the Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs Murakami bag (2003) as well as three Judith Leiber jeweled minaudiere evening bags, the duck one calling to mind the Carrie Bradshaw unwanted “ugly duckling” bag gifted to her by Big. Branded unisex tote bags such as the one distributed by The New Yorker become ubiquitous on city streets.

Bill Blass black cashmere evening dress, fall 1986

The exhibition ends with two examples of garments deriving their impact through pockets — a man’s Versace Versus suit with a military look (1993) and a stunning 1986 Bill Blass black cashmere turtleneck dress — completely unembellished except for the elaborate jeweled pockets — an enduring style recalling the embroidered pocket flaps from eighteenth-century menswear.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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