The most expansive exhibition of rare, coveted, and generation-defining designer handbags isn't found at the Met's Costume Institute, nor the Victoria & Albert Museum. Rather, it's housed inside a historical home-turned-decorative arts museum in the charming town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
For fashion enthusiasts and accessory connoisseurs, the two-hour trek from NYC is beyond worth it, if only to explore the colorful, fabulous purse collection of Ilene Hochberg Wood, a woman whose Birkin closet could give even Kim Kardashian a run for her money. In fact, Wood is widely recognized as boasting the largest privately-owned bag collection in the world, and through June 30th, you can explore hundreds of her favorites at PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History.
The main portion of the exhibition, which spans three sites in the Bethlehem area, is on display at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, where handbags are finally given the recognition they deserve not only as legit pieces of art, but also as anthropological artifacts.
"I am interested in fashion, and the artistry and history of purses. I am drawn to bags that convey a story about their past, and the women who originally owned them," says Wood, who, in addition to contemporary staples, owns and displays pieces from the Victorian era, Jazz Age, the war years, and, of course, the ever-significant 1990s. But, don't be fooled, this is no boring history lesson. Wood also appreciates "originality, humor, bold statements," and even has a cheeky selection of counterfeits, asking visitors if they can point out the real deals in comparison.
No matter how much you think you know about bags, you might even leave with a new favorite designer. One of the most fascinating displays focuses on the novelty designs of the mysterious Anne Marie, who is said to have had a shop in one of the Grand Hotels of Paris in the 1940s, and whose rare purses are shaped like telephones, champagne buckets, and cigarette boxes. One even has its own mini-bar - Instagrammable, to say the least.
Whether you're in the PA area or are looking for a stylish excuse for a day trip out of the city, head here for more information on PURSEonality!
[Photos by John Bohnel]