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Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function

Gallery FIT
March 6 – 31, 2018
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The Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Graduate Studies and The Museum at FIT present Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function. Organized by graduate students in the Fashion and Textile Studies program, the exhibition explores pockets and purses as both fashionable and functional objects by tracing both their history and evolution to accommodate the demands of modern life. Displaying objects from the collection of The Museum at FIT, the exhibition analyzes the interplay between pockets and purses in both men’s and women’s wardrobes from the 18th century to the present. In addition to garments and accessories, the exhibition features photographs, advertisements, and film clips that demonstrate how pockets and purses have been utilized throughout history and the ways that lifestyle changes have affected their design and use.
small handbag with flower embroidery and drawstring closure
Reticule of a man’s waistcoat, embroidered silk, circa 1800, France, The Museum at FIT, gift of Thomas Oechsler. 93.132.2
illustration of man standing with hand in pocket
Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français, circa 1779-1787, FIT Special Collections and College Archives, Fashion Plate 162.

Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function begins with 18th-century examples of men’s and women’s pockets. Men’s pockets were built into jackets or waistcoats so that men could carry a variety of objects, including books. Problematically, the lines of a man’s tailored ensemble were often disrupted by bulky items. Alternatively, women’s pockets began as separate accessories that were tied to the body and worn underneath a skirt. These pockets were completely hidden, allowing a woman to carry items while maintaining privacy.
detail image of small watch pocket on left hip of royal blue bodice with black embroidery
Bodice, silk taffeta, circa 1878, France, Gift of Bernice Margulies. The Museum at FIT. 70.65.6
front of royal blue bodice with black embroidery
Bodice, silk taffeta, circa 1878, France, The Museum at FIT, gift of Bernice Margulies. 70.65.6

Changing fashions and evolving roles in society led to women carrying their possessions in handheld bags. A reticule — a small handbag typically made with a drawstring closure — displayed in the exhibition illustrates the evolution of pockets into handheld purses. The shape, ornamentation, and pocket flap of this example from circa 1800 indicate that it was fabricated from an 18th-century man’s waistcoat, an example of which can be seen in the rendering on a fashion plate dating from 1778 to 1787. A blue bodice from circa 1878 that features a small watch pocket on the left hip reveals a fashionable approach to practical design. The pocket has embroidered decoration, but the easily accessible location and convenient shape of the pocket are function driven.
small bag with floral decorations alongside three small cases
Evening bag and contents, wool and metal, 1920–1930,
France, The Museum at FIT, gift of Charles Enders. 81.60.23
A needlepoint bag dating from 1920-30 contains three small cases that demonstrate the prevalence for ensemble dressing that arose during the 1920s. The coordinating containers for cigarettes and face powder testify to a growing acceptance of women smoking and wearing makeup in public. The tension between fashion and function continued into the 20th century. The exhibition includes an ad for Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Cash and Carry” suits, which featured large pockets on the hips for carrying supplies, demonstrating the desire for functionality that prevailed at the outbreak of World War II. After the war, designers deemphasized functionality and began to feature pockets primarily as design elements. A Molyneux dress from 1948 has eight strategically placed pockets on the hips that make the waist appear smaller, a silhouette that dominated postwar fashion.
long sleeve houndstooth dress with eight large pockets around the hips
Molyneux, wool houndstooth dress, circa 1948, France, The Museum at FIT,
gift of Mrs. Ephraim London, Mrs. Rowland Mindlin and Mrs. Walter Eytan
in memory of Mrs. M. Lincoln Schuster. 78.134.27
American designers such as Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin incorporated pockets that were as playful as they were practical. A bright green raincoat by Cashin circa 1965 features a pocket designed to look like a shoulder bag — making her raincoat a visual fusion of fashion and function. Made from leather, canvas, and the twist-lock closures that were typical of Cashin’s work, the coat’s large, practical pocket allowed the wearer to go hands-free while keeping her possessions close.
bright green rain coat with large pocket
Bonnie Cashin, raincoat, cotton canvas and leather,
circa 1965, USA, The Museum at FIT. 99.56.1
Novelty bags demonstrate the whimsy of fashion, though they also convey wealth and status. A 1950s Lederer purse shaped like a clock has a built-in lipstick compartment and utilizes traditional elegant materials in a novel design. Additionally, Judith Leiber’s 1994 Swarovski crystal-encrusted minaudière in the shape of a tomato was designed to be a display of glamour and imagination. Both examples present the handbag as an objet d’art and show how designers sometimes perform more as artists, focusing on form rather than functionality.
small black and gold bag shaped like a clock
Lederer, novelty bag with cosmetics case, black suede with brass, 1950s, France, The Museum at FIT. P85.13.7
purse shaped like a tomato and covered in red, green, and gold crystals
Judith Leiber, pavé rhinestones with gold metal, 1994, USA, The Museum at FIT, gift of Judith Leiber, Inc. 97.62.1

Other iterations of the status bag, specifically those of the late 20th century, are also on display. An Hermès “Kelly” bag from 2000 demonstrates the longevity of the bag’s design, which set standards for the luxury market when it was introduced as a saddle bag in 1892. Alternatively, a Louis Vuitton purse from 2003 shows a trendier kind of status bag. Its colorful take on the traditional Vuitton “Speedy” bag played into passing fashion trends during the early 2000s.
trapezoid shaped black bag
Hermès, Kelly bag, leather and brass, 2000, France, The Museum at FIT, gift of Laura Solomon in memory of Sally Solomon. 2002.96.18
white bag with the louis vuitton multicolor monogram printed all over
Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton, Speedy bag, multicolor monogram canvas, 2003, France, The Museum at FIT. 2010.56.2

Various menswear items are also included, such as a 1990 sport coat by Jean Paul Gaultier. With layers of cargo pockets, velcro flaps, and heavy-duty zippers, this jacket is a take on the functional pockets in conventional men’s sportswear. Similarly, a bowler hat designed by Rod Keenan in 2006 subverts the traditional bowler by including, at the crown, a pocket made to hold a condom.
brown jacket with different styles of pockets and zippers going down the left and right front
Jean Paul Gaultier Homme, man’s jacket, wool, spring 1990, France, The Museum at FIT, gift of Richard Martin. 90.109.2
close up image of hat with zipper opening at the top
Rod Keenan, hat, wool, grosgrain, and synthetic satin, fall 2006, USA, The Museum at FIT. 2009.14.2

The final section of the exhibition focuses on pockets that allude to historical embellishments. Included are a Bill Blass knit dress from fall 1986 and a man’s Versace suit from 1992. Shown alongside a reproduction of an 18th-century man’s embroidered coat, these objects are reminders of the pocket’s fashionable use throughout history.
close up of pocket on an embroidered jacket
Detail reproduction of man’s suit, velvet with silk embroidery, c. 1785, France, The Museum at FIT. P83.19.10
long sleeve black dress with gold embroidery on left and right side pockets
Bill Blass, evening sweater dress with belt, cashmere and satin, fall 1986, USA, The Museum at FIT, gift of Mrs. Savanna Clark. 2001.41.3
Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function has been organized by the graduate students in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, with the support of Sarah Byrd and Emma McClendon.