A World Class Collection
The Jean Brown Archive is one of the world's largest collections of vintage and antique handbags and accessories. It contains several hundred pieces, dating from the 1600s through to the 2000s. The collection has been housed and displayed at Jean Brown, a concept store located in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley, since it opened in 2007. Director Amber Long recently announced that the store would be closing, however, the collection will remain in her care.
The Jean Brown store featured a rotating display of handbags and accessories from the Archive, showcasing the changing history of these items alongside their contemporary designer counterparts. As such, Jean Brown blurred the line between store and gallery.
The above image shows the store window during an exhibition called Imeldific! 20th Century Shoe Design, curated by Nadia Buick and Amber Long, in collaboration with shoe blogger Matt Jordan, in 2010.
Purses for men, pockets for women
Items of clothing and accessories, such as handbags, can provide great insight in to the social history of men and women throughout time. In the case of the Jean Brown Archive, certain pieces give a snapshot on the changing roles of women, including shifts in social mobility, and attitudes to personal appearance. Other items bely our current understanding of handbags. For instance, this 'Purse of Endearment' dates to an era when men were actually just as likely to be sporting a small purse or bag. Its elaborate surface detail, floral motifs, and bright colours seem incredibly feminine, yet it was owned by a man. The purse would have been hand-made by a woman and gifted to a man as a sign of intimacy or courting. The slogan at the top of the purse reads 'to our memories.'
Dating to a similar period, the Pocket Bag would have been worn by a woman under her skirt, attached to the waist-band. The 'pocket' would have then been accessed through specifically placed slits in the skirt's fabric. Eventually though, the fashionable silhouette changed to become more form-fitting, leaving no room for these bags to fit under a full skirt. As such, the 'reticule' (a small fabric pouch, usually made from fine silk or velvet and featuring a hand strap) was born. These were carried and became a visible part of a woman's outfit, like handbags today.
On the Move
This Carpetbag represents an era of increased mobility, when rail travel expanded in the mid 1800s. Men and women alike (who themselves began entering a period of greater mobility during this time) used such bags, which were literally made from old, sturdy wool carpets. The functionality and popularity of these items meant that they were mass-produced during this time. Luggage itself became a huge boom industry, with saddle-makers and other leather-goods providers creating custom leather bags for travel. The term 'handbag' entered popular use at this time to describe these hand-carried bags.
Carpetbags were predominantly used in the United States, and later immortalised in the film Mary Poppins. Despite the wear and tear that a bag such as this would be subjected to, this piece remains in excellent condition, and is a rare example of this kind of bag in an Australian collection.
Austerity followed by Excess
The fabrication and details of clothing and accessories can reveal many clues about a social and political climate. Pieces dating from World War II are frugal and restrained. Conversely, items dating from the decade following are often excessive in their construction and use of expensive materials; a direct response to formerly leaner times. These two handbags from the Jean Brown Archive demonstrate the two extremes.
On the left is a sombre black leather handbag worn by a woman during wartime. It is typical of styles from this period, when rationing was a part of life, and women's fashions took on an austere aesthetic influenced by the sobriety of social and political circumstances.
The bag on the right is a luxurious snakeskin clutch, lined in silk, dating from the 1950s. Clutch style purses became common in the 1930s, evolving from the 1920s beaded 'pochette', or small purse without handles. This 1950s clutch would likely have been one of many purses in the wardrobe of a middle-class 1950s woman, who would have co-ordinated it with a particular outfit. It was a petite and not overtly functional object, designed to be held in one hand and carry a small selection of objects. By contrast, the war-time bag would have been an everyday, all purpose accessory designed to hold a large number of items and blend in with every (rationed) outfit.
Night on the Town
These 1920s-30s flapper purses were made for dancing the night away. While one is an astoundingly unique design, the other represents a fairly standard style owned by many women of the era. The bag on the right was crafted from acid green bakelite, set with diamantes, and features a silk cord handle and tassel. The purse on the left shows a plethora of diamantes, which began to be mass produced in this era and featured on a variety of fashionable garments and accessories.
Both of these items recall the Jazz Age, and also reflect the lifestyle of the so called 'Modern Woman' of the early 20th century, whose independence and mobility set her apart from the women of previous generations.
The green dance purse would have been a custom-made item, and is designed to hold an entire beauty repertoire: a mirror, a watch, calling card, powder puff, lipstick and eye shadow. In addition, a green bakelite perfume holder is tucked away beneath the silk tassel.
This padded, striped beauty case with bright pink satin interior is a quintessential 1960s item. These capacious carryalls were used for storing and transporting a woman's beauty 'essentials': hairbrush, mirror, makeup, hairspray, rollers, hair pins, stockings and gloves (and plenty more).
But despite being a common style of handbag, this particular beauty case is quite special. While many items in public and private collections become separated from their original provenance, we are fortunate to know the details of this handbag's owner, Mona Crawford.
Mona Crawford was a fashion designer and stylist, born in Sydney in 1909. She worked for a number of prominent Australian fashion retailors, including Mark Foys and Myer, making frequent buying trips to the United States (perhaps with this very beauty case). In later years Mona ran her own fashion agency, Mona Crawford International, in Sydney. Mona passed away in 1998, but this handbag symbolises a pioneering woman in the Australian fashion industry.
Published in Issue 7, on November 19, 2013.