A compact history of women 

HAM’s “The Purse and The Person” show clicks.

PONY UP: A hide purse.
  • PONY UP: A hide purse.
One recent morning I pulled into my parking place with more stuff to carry into the office than could possibly fit in my purse. In addition to the regular junk I carry, I needed to pack a makeup bag (running too late to do that at home) and a blueberry muffin (too late to eat at home). Fortunately, my daughter's large hemp satchel was in my car and I poured my stuff into her stuff and hauled it in to work. I might have wished the satchel did not contain 10 AA batteries, but it did.

The thing about purses, at least in my life, is that there is no perfection. When you have lots of stuff, you want a big bag. You carry the big bag for a few months, and think, this is ridiculous — it's too heavy and I can't find anything in it. So you discipline yourself with a new purse, one that's small and sleek and light. It's OK for a while — but then you find yourself with no way to carry the makeup bag and muffin you need. And the season changes.

The point of this purse perambulation is this: Our bags are a big deal to us. We don't care that men can get away with money clips. We've got to have our stuff.

Which is why, partly, Anita Davis of Little Rock decided to create, from her collection of more than 2,000 purses, an exhibit -- to illustrate her theory that handbags carry the history of women. From tiny purses to the shoulder bags of the 1970s, they betray the evolution of the “non-involved” Edwardian woman to today's do-it-all-all, fully involved worker/mom who, she cleverly says in a DVD she produced, “is carrying a lot of the load” of life.

That exhibit, “The Purse and The Person,” now at the Historic Arkansas Museum, blends fashion history and aesthetics and includes a “pursonality” quiz that allows viewers to weigh in, literally, on the subject of purses with a scale and a form to fill out about you and your purse.

The handbags and clutches are arranged in clusters by time, use and material, and are accompanied by text panels that comment on how purse design reflected the evolution of women's roles in society. There are Edwardian bags, flapper bags, Bakelite bags, beaded bags, novelty travel bags and bags made of crocodile, alligator, ostrich and pony hide.

There are gorgeous bags, our favorites a small red reptile-of-some-sort purse with a cuff and tiny straps, a small brown leather clutch with staggered edges that repeat the art deco architecture of the 1920s, a big soft black leather satchel from the 1980s or '90s, an oval box purse in red leather, a satin-lined clear Lucite clutch with flowers glittering with rhinestones, and the golden brown Bakelite purse. There are wacky bags — a strawberry-shaped pink straw bag is set on a pointed bamboo stick so that it could, I guess, be stuck in the sand. In the weird material category is a great-looking bag made of several colors of phone cord, another crafted with origami-tucked Kool cigarette packs, a third of tab tops. There are the completely impractical bags made of thin strips of bamboo or some other flexible wood; one resembles a seine and the other a lovely contemporary craft object.

Crucial to the exhibit are accessories that would have been found in the bags (some of them actually were in them when Davis acquired them) that tell the tale of the bag's era: a small combination shoehorn and button hook; rouge; a box lighter in the shape of a miniature Winston cigarette pack; an old paper library card for the Little Rock public library; a rabbit's foot; a racy (in a 1960s kind of way) paperback; small tins holding Mexsana “heat powder” and “hosiery service kits” and Mentholatum, an early “charge-a-plate” credit card, a Kotex belt, a diaphragm case, and rolling papers (the latter two accompanying a hippie-ish vintage purse).

Among the many charms of this show is that it will remind some visitors of their mothers, of the pocketbook and white glove period, and maybe of their own purse past.

Do not pass up the chance to read the “pursonality” entry forms in a binder under the scale. To the question, “How much does your purse weigh?” replies ranged from 1 to a back-breaking 20 pounds. “What's the weirdest thing in your bag?” has so far reeled in a threading hook for a spinning wheel and wrist bands for morning sickness. “When will you quit using this purse?” is often answered “when the handle falls off.”

The very entertaining DVD that in theory (it wasn't working when I was there) is shown on a kiosk screen in the gallery includes interviews with women at the River Market and members of Davis' book club. A woman at the River Market pulls a magic-trick load of stuff out of her bag; another recalls how she fought a mugger for a purse that cost $4 from Target. A member of Davis' book club relates that she stores some of her mother's ashes in one of her mother's favorite evening bags, along with the peppermints and gloves she always carried. When she discovered that her daughter was carrying a bit of the ashes in her own handbag, she says, she worried that the bag might be lost and there would go the ashes. But, she tells the book club, she decided a lost purse wouldn't be so bad — her mother never met a stranger, she said, and loved travel.

The show runs through December.

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