Tassen Museum: Accessories are a Girl's Best Friend

Accessories are this girl's best friend, and lucky for me, I was able to visit Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses, a three-floor museum dedicated to the history of bags and purses. This museum showcases both men and women utilizing bags to transport their coins, documents, papers, alms, bibles, holy relics and an increasing number of personal items, including keys, combs, mirrors, pincushions, cosmetics, and jewelry throughout history.

Adornments from sunglasses to the right shoes have been an essential part of getting dressed for centuries. Hats and umbrellas are practical additions to an ensemble that protect us from the elements. Accessories also express social status. A person's choice of embellishments reveals whether he or she follows the latest trends, identifies with a particular group, or the opposite, prefers to be seen as an individual. Just like with clothing, the design and use of accessories change throughout time. Personal bags moved on to be exclusively women's domain for a few years, but as with everything we have come full circle, bags are for everyone.

Gaming Purses

In the sixteenth to eighteenth-century, the game of chance was a very popular pastime in the European courts. Money was won and lost with dice and cards games (such as Ombre, Quadrille, Basset and Trolle Madam). Those that played these games kept their money or chips in "gaming purses". These bags had a hard round base so that they could stand upright. At times, this base was decorated with a family coat of arms to identify its owner.


In some areas of Europe, tradition dictated that the groom gift the bride with a purse filled with money during the wedding ceremony. This monetary exchange symbolized the transfer of worldly goods. The number of coins tended to be symbolic: thirteen coins represented Christ and the twelve apostles. The purses were often adorned with hearts, cupids, flowers, the couple's coat-of-arms, or initials beneath a crown. These days money is given as a wedding gift in an envelope, but in previous times, wedding purses were embroidered or woven from precious materials.

The French city of Limoges, famous for its enamel and porcelain, produced bridal bags between 1690 and 1760. They were flat oval purses which had copper plates on both sides with enamel depictions of the couple or a saint. The purse with the depiction of Martha and Mary Magdalene was possibly used during an entrance ceremony at a convent.

Letter cases and wallets

In the seventeenth century, the letter case or wallet came into use for storing love letters, documents, and bank drafts while purses and pouches held coins. Many letter cases were made from colored leather, with one or more compartments lined with marbled paper. Silk letter cases were embroidered with silk or metal thread, sequins and or/foil. They were also trimmed with straw, hair or painted with Indian ink. Letter cases were often given as a souvenir, engagement or wedding present. Many of the illustrations and motifs were related to love and loyalty: cupids, hearts with and without flames, Venus goddess of love, two dogs (a symbol of faithfulness), two birds (engagement) and the anchor (hope). By the eighteenth century, a woman’s letter case often included a small pocket notebook in which she could make notes on the latest scandals, clothes, hair fashions, her lovers, poems, and recipes.


In the 1700s workbags were an indispensable accessory as respectable women were expected to spend their free time on needlework. Ladies often took their bags with them on social visits and worked on their designs while drinking tea with other women. A popular style was a flat rectangular bag that closed at the top with a drawstring. These were mostly made of white satin and embellished with ribbons, foil, and sequins. Many women decorated these bags themselves, but they could also be purchased in shops.


Ivory was used in the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century to decorate purses and bags. Detailed images were carved into the ivory which showed up well against the dark leather. See the beautiful detail on the snakeskin bag with an ivory carved depiction of Eve plucking the apple in paradise. Beautifully carved ivory was exceptionally expensive. Just as with tortoiseshell, the discovery of the first plastics provided a solution to this expense. Imitation ivory was made using celluloid, especially in the first quarter of the last century. Use of imitation ivory was focused mainly on bag clasps with Eastern motifs inspired by the Tutankhamen’s grave in 1922. By the 1930s, bags and clutches were composed of plastic as it was no longer viewed as a cheap imitation but as a modern rigid structure.


Leather is one of the oldest materials used by man. The Egyptians made leather by treating animal skin to a tanning process that made the skin tougher and weather resistant. In principle, all animal skin can be turned into leather. Sheep, pig, goat, and cow skin are the ones utilized the most. Luxury leather goods may also use snake, crocodile, ostrich, lizard, fish, armadillo, toad, leopard, ray fish, shark, and even Nile perch skin.

Straw, Wood and Other Materials

In the eighteenth century, it was en vogue to decorate clothing, hats, and accessories such as bags and letter cases with straw. The straw was first split, pressed flat and then applied to wood, leather, cardboard or a cloth background. Straw is naturally golden in color, but a few a color nuances appeared by heating the straw with a flatiron. The result could be further enhanced by gluing sprinkled grains of gold or other metals, or staining it in various colors. Wicker, aloe, cactus fibers, wood, raffia, bamboo, and nuts have also been used to decorate bags, baskets, and purses. By the twentieth century, these same materials started to become common in woven bags and baskets.

Beaded bags

At the beginning of the 19th century, owning a beaded bag was considered a luxury as they were arduous and time-consuming to create. An experienced knitter could take up to two weeks to complete a bag with more than 50,000 beads strung according to the pattern. Popular motifs included flowers, temples, gravestones, weeping willows, harps, hunting scenes, and oriental illustration. Towards the end of the 19th-century, weaving with beads became more fashionable. These were made in Czechoslovakia, Germany from beautiful Bohemian or Bavarian glass beads, and France, Italy, and Austria. By the 20th century, beaded bags also included a decorative metal, tortoiseshell or plastic frame. Motifs in this century consisted of flowers, picturesque landscapes with traditional houses, castles, ruins, children, historical tableaux and oriental carpets.

Eastern Decorations

These bags were made of leather with embossed Eastern decorations. From 1915-1955 these bags were made in the Middle and Far East for the European market. Similar bags were sold at Liberty in London and Egypt at the Port Said bazaar, where passenger ships on the way to or from the Far East made stops.


One can see changes in Dutch society and education over the centuries by looking at the schoolbag. In the 17th century, a wooden box for books, a slate, and a stylus hung on the wall of the school for each child. Classrooms had no desks; therefore the boxes doubled as tables. When child labor was abolished in 1901, all children were required to attend school. This mandate increased the need for sturdy, easy-to-carry school bags. Leather bags became a favorite because of their durability. The pukkel, a canvas shoulder bag, followed in the 50s. In the 60s and 70s, these were decorated with stickers (often protest slogans) under the influence of the emerging youth culture.

Art Deco and Unusual Bags

Bag designers were inspired by the art movements currently en vogue. Throughout the centuries designers have tried to make bags more noticeable by giving them unusual forms or decoration. In the 1930s Elsa Schiaparelli created surrealist fashion accessories and bags. A clutch bag was designed in the shape of the luxurious French cuisine ship the Normandie, during its voyage from France to the U.S., each first-class passenger received one. Some of these bags are sought after by collectors from around the world.

Fashion brands and contemporary designs

Fashion houses started to expand their designs to include accessories to match the clothing they were producing. Celebrity endorsement is important to fashion houses, as the bag develops status it becomes the "it bag". Handbag designs are strongly influenced by the world. The handbag is not just used to accessorize clothes; it is a fashion phenomenon that changes with every season, and can also reflect the status and success of the woman (person) who owns it. Designers have various and individual starting points for designing a bag. There are designers influenced by architecture who make bags in geometric shapes combined with daring color combinations. For other designers, the handbag is an accessory that must be durable. They are primarily interested in the practical function the bag must fulfill and make use of sturd materials, and also include handy compartments for telephone and keys. Emotion plays a role for some designers. Portraits, the Madonna, and angels turn bags into personal statements.

Suitcases and travel bags

In the nineteenth century, steam trains and steamships made traveling more comfortable, faster and cheaper. Chatelaine bags were small tied to the belt and evolved into wrist bags, with a ring for the wrist, or as a handbag with handle. These bags were intended for keeping the money, notebooks, train tickets and similar items. The range of suitcases changed due to people traveling more often. Trunks with round lids could be easily transported on top of a horse-drawn carriage; flat leather suitcases could be stacked and easily carried by hand. The travel bag was indispensable for commuting. Suitcases, travel bags, dressing cases, shoe, and hatboxes were mostly made of leather; however, around 1826, a Frenchman named Pierre Godillot made a traveling bag out of canvas. The canvas traveling bag could also be embroidered. Many women embroidered their bags themselves and then had the local saddler add leather hooks, handles, and a metal frame. Outing travel bags were made for visiting theaters and had room for opera glasses, powderpuff and tickets. For a trip to the countryside, there was the picnic basket, neatly filled with plates, cutlery, teacups, sugar bowl, biscuit tin, thermos flask and in some cases even a gas stove.

I hope you enjoyed this accessories fashion tour! If you'd like to check out this beautiful exhibit, head over to Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses, located at Herengracht 573, 1017CD, Amsterdam. Visit their website for hours of operation and entry fee.


- steph

#TassenMuseum #Purses #Bags #Amsterdam #ArtsCulture #Expat

Follow Us
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube