Welcome to The Museum of Old Bags
My mother loves accessories.
All the women in my family like to play dress-up. Other families sat around the campfire roasting weenies; my older sister, my mother and I tried on outfits. Clip-clopping from one tiny bedroom to the other in high, medium, and low heels, we painstakingly coordinated accessories. Even today, when some are practicing Buddhism and others have their upturned noses pointed toward the Sunday sermon, I am shuttling between closets and dresser-tops, peacefully accessorizing west-coast style. I never feel as serene as when I'm picking out and trying on accessories. I suspect it's a peculiarly Jewish-style form of meditation. And like many things in Life, I only know when to stop when I've had one too many. Aunt Sara's beatnik pin, that weird scarf from...was it my mother's? There's always just enough time to toss it onto the couch before you walk out the front door. Grab your evening bag and you're walking perfection.
Throughout the '40s and '50s, and even as late as the '80s, when a properly-attired woman stepped out for a formal or even a semi-formal event, she always wielded an Evening Bag. The Museum of Old Bags, which is under construction in San Francisco, came about when, on a recent trip to my ancestral home in Queens Village, my mother offered me her fantastic collection of vintage evening bags. If you are in San Francisco, please email email@example.com to arrange an appointment to view the collection.
The Evening Bag
Customarily brandished in the evening, these tiny but riveting totes also made coquettish appearances at afternoon weddings and bar mitzvah brunches. There were many occasions upon which my mother enjoyed having the latest porte-monnaie tucked under her arm or dangling from her wrist. I had an absurd number of male cousins in New York who were endlessly reaching puberty, resulting in a long procession of Bar Mitzvahs. (To my consternation, it seemed that my life would never, ever be bar mitzvah–free.) And once a year, my father's Teamsters Local had a huge wing-ding at the Waldorf-Astoria, featuring the top talent of the time. I tagged along for Tony Bennett and I am certain I saw Cab Calloway when he was very old, though I probably passed on Steve and Eydie, though, and now, having just visited their website love-fest, I feel sorry for writing that. I am certain Eydie has a fantastic collection of Evening Bags.
How do I know this? Because the best place to carry the Evening Bag was Saturday Night in the Catskills. Every night at The Pines or The Fallsview was special, but none were as special as Saturday Night. The meals at these hotels made the dining experience on a Caribbean cruise look like Parent's Day at Fat Camp. The food was insanely heaped upon your plate every night until you could burst just looking at it. But on Saturday Night you had Prime Rib or Peking Duck. With after-dinner entertainment by Steve and Eydie or maybe even Alan King (who was, to me, a God; the funniest man on earth), it was time to bring out your very best gown, complete with matching shoes, hat, gloves and, of course, Evening Bag.
These bags were typically light in color, as it was usually summertime; either they were dyed-to-match your pastel dress or, like the ones below, were some variation on white (champagne, ecru, ivory) or gold lamé.
I was delighted to discover that one produced a receipt-sized note in an outdated font letting my parents know where they could pick up their Saturday night photo, #408. On Display Outside Dining Room Breakfast & Lunch. (The definite article must have cost extra those days.) In this case it was probably not one of the color transparencies that came inside those little key-chain viewers, but a formally-situated 5 x 7 which would be ceremoniously unpinned from the bulletin board in the lobby and placed in a folded frame with The Fallsview Hotel, Ellenville, N.Y. embossed on the front in gold ink.
But where are the bags she had dyed-to-match? Is it possible there's another whole carton of purses buried somewhere in that cramped garden apartment in Queens? Are they in little coffins with their matching shoes?
I haven't found any yarmulkes in any of them, but I probably haven't looked hard enough.
A Bag Within a Bag
Inside the carton in my mother's bedroom, each bag was wrapped carefully in its own little plastic bag, some of these plastic bags so microscopically thin that the iceburg lettuce they originally contained must have been eaten decades ago. My Aunt Sylvia, who was a Freudian analyst, was fascinated by purses as metaphors for female genitalia. She always noticed how quickly little girls took to carrying them, and how they loved to tuck precious things inside them. With this in mind, these painstakingly plastic-bagged purses seemed pampered, almost virginal; their very femininity protected from the harshness of Time.
One of these plastic bags had the TWA logo on it and pronounced, "TWA Ambassador Theatre Presents Adventures in Sound." The chunky headphones from the TWA exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair came in it. Another huge plastic bag announced: Really BIG Bouffant Shower Cap Styled To Protect Your Hair. My mother, who is endlessly fussy about protecting her hair, can never find shower caps large enough for her carrot-colored, bouffant hairdo. Even now, at 86, my mother's hairdo stays the same size and shape as my poor mother shrinks beneath it.
So, Let's Look at the Purses.
1. My Satin Doll
Just look at this shapely little number. Curvy; feminine; definitely one that Aunt Sylvia and her friend Herr Sigmund would have had a field day analyzing. And so chic, it even has its own jewelry: look at that flashy rhinestone-studded clasp! Inside: an old address label, and the curious letters U S A stamped on the lining.
2. Café au Lait Beaded Bag
These beige beads? This is SO my mother. When I look at this I can actually smell her hairspray. I never before realized how much my mom liked beige. The cool thing about this bag is that at first it looks cheap and faux-'60s; on closer inspection you can tell it's expensive and really from the '60s. It's got a thick, ribbed coffee-colored rayon lining (That's enough, Aunt Sylvia) and a heavy, clunky metal zipper. Inside there's a classy label that says "Barbara Lee" in cursive, with Made in Italy embroidered underneath.
My mother uses a lot of hairspray. One time when we were over at Aunt Sylvia's house she accidently picked up a can of air freshener on the back of the toilet in the little half-bathroom downstairs and sprayed the crap out of her head before realizing what she was doing. Then we heard her scream.
3. Beaded Black Bag
OK, this bag is so exquisite I can hardly talk about it. It's kind of sleek and fluffy at the same time. It has gorgeous diamondy-looking rhinestones set into its clasp. Inside, it says it was hand-beaded in Hong Kong. You can tell immediately that not one bead has ever fallen off it. You can tuck the handle inside and it never even happened. Perhaps that is best. From a distance it looks a little like Blackened Salmon.
4. Soft Kidskin (or something) Leather Clutch
Well, maybe kidskin, maybe llamaskin. The label inside says it was made in—I kid you not—Uruguay. I wonder what variety of government Uruguay had in 1965. This bag is so soft and delicate and pretty I kind of wanted to be alone with it for awhile. Instead I actually used it (that sounds so crass) to go out to dinner with my parents when I was in New York. I put my cell phone and my digital camera and my iPod in it and I think it felt violated by The Future.
By the way, this is the bag I found the "Your photo is #408..." note in. I wonder if they ever did pick up photo #408. I mean, no tickee no photo-ee, right? What if they forgot? What do you think happened to it?
5. Jackie O's Golden Clutch
This twinkly gold lamé clutch has a delicate, tiny leaf-shaped clasp and is as flat as a pancake. I think the only thing you can keep inside it is a pancake. Just kidding. Maybe a yarmulke or a couple of theatre tickets, or a note telling you where to pick up photo #408. This is the clutch that came in the TWA bag, so maybe my mother went to a bar mitzvah in 1964 in St. Louis...wait, it must've been her nephew Gary's Bar Mitzvah! Gary's like 60 now and has Costa Rican grandchildren. Who knew?
6. Aunt Sara's Pearly Purse
OK, I've kind of cheated here because I've had this one since I got some of Aunt Sara's stuff when she died, like her high school ring and her embroidered guest towels. But it's such a pretty little thing I had to include it. It's quite small and says "Made in Japan" in red inside. They used to make cheap stuff in Japan. I have nothing to say about this bag but Wow, it sure is purdy.
7. Pop-Art Purse
On first glance, this too looks like a modern object, modeled after the '60s...but it IS the '60s. How can we tell? The two zippers are huge, the ring dangling off it is heavy plastic, like Bakelite, and there is a weird gold inscription inside which seems to be printed backwards; if I hold it up to a mirror I think I can make out "Paul is Dead." Maybe it was made in England. To tell you the truth, I don't care where it's from, I just like fondling its little nubs; they remind me of candy buttons.
8. Knights in White Chainmail
This feisty little number is made of white-enameled chainmail. It harks back to the days of King Arthur while harking forward to the days of Star Trek and the Apollo astronauts. Well, if one of the astronauts was, say, Nancy Reagan. The snaky handle is particularly fun to play with, like a long Chinese finger puzzle. It's lined with heavyweight maroon tafetta. The label inside says it was made in the USA by "Mesh /Whiting & Davis Company / Bags." Maybe Mr. Whiting was in the wholesale hardware business and his crafty little wife saw this stuff laying around their finished basement and thought, "That'd make a neat little evening bag." Or maybe he was an astronaut and she had just a little too much free time, with him being busy in space and all.
9. Fuzzy Champagne Velvet Clutch
Yes, I know that sounds like the name of a drink, as in "I should have never touched the Fuzzy Clutch." Touching the fuzzy clutch, you know, is sometimes just touching the fuzzy clutch, Aunt Sylvia. This fuzzy clutch has a rhinestone clasp and is like a giant mutant change-purse folded over in the middle. It's supposed to be carried under your arm, but please wear anti-perspirant with it, now that it's been invented.
10. Delicious Brocade Pocketbook
This bag is just a little too big to be an evening bag, and a little too small to be a regular pocketbook, as they used to be called. It must be carried in the crook of the arm, and have actual hankies rather than Kleenex in it, and a pair of taupe evening gloves. But it's kind of petite. I'm not sure I can fit my cell phone and my camera in there too, but if I can, I am planning on taking it to a Bat Mitzvah in October. Where else?!
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