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What’s Inside? A Century of Women and Purses, 1900–1999 by Anita Davis A lifelong collector of purses (and m Read More

What’s Inside? A Century of Women and Purses, 1900–1999 by Anita Davis


A lifelong collector of purses (and many other things) and strong believer in dreamwork, Davis’s vision to open ESSE Purse Museum began with a series of dreams. As she shares in the book’s preface, the faces of women she didn’t know came to her “in flashes, their faces appearing one after another after another like rolling pictures… they whispered into [her] ear as one: ‘We have more stories to tell.’” Realizing that the strange faces were those women who once carried the purses she’d collected over three decades, her duty to share their stories through their purses became clear, and her work began to open the only purse museum in the country. It quickly became clear that the museum was about much more than purses. Davis realized the team was:


…actually curating a women’s history museum, one that tells the story of the American woman from 1900 to 1999 through her constantly changing purses and the items she carried in them… a mini history lesson, with a dose of fashion.


The book follows the museum’s fifth birthday, and continues Davis’s vision through “clutch-sized vignettes and gleaming minaudières” in collaboration with her artist daughter, photographers, and writers. Rather than being filled with expensive, luxe bags (only a couple appear throughout), it focuses on celebrating the everyday woman in twentieth century America. It is about the yous, the mes, our mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and women who aren’t blood but who’ve meant a great deal to us—our collective foremothers versus the fashion brands or icons that are so often are the focus of fashion books.


You’ll likely find yourself awash in nostalgia over the spilled contents of purses during the decades in which you’ve carried them (for me, the Tears for Fears cassette tape from the 80s and the Blockbuster Video cards from the 90s got it just right). In the 70s, the soft suede cross-body bag came into fashion “so arms could be freed for living and loving.” A disco diva’s bag might reveal “just maybe, cocaine to keep her energized.” This book is loads of fun and the Christmas gift I’ll be sending to all my girlfriends. I love the idea that as I read it, I’m “[b]reathing life into often unnamed heroines,” and “rever[ing] the stylish changemakers whose struggles and triumphs forged the way for generations of women to come.”

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