Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function
March 6–31, 2018
The Museum at FIT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday, noon–8 pm; Saturday, 10 am–5 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, and legal holidays.
Admission is free.