History in a Purse
Director and Curator of the Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam
Sometimes history is literally reflected in a bag.
The arrival of the first giraffe in France in 1826 is an historic event that was meticulously captured in tens of thousands of beads on the bag. The story of the giraffe put all of France in a spin. Its influence on fashion, jewellery design, painting and interiors was marked. In autumn 1826, after a long trip through Africa across the Mediterranean, the first giraffe set foot on French soil. The animal, named Zarafa, was a gift from the Egyptian viceroy to the French king Charles X (1757-1836).
After arriving in Marseille, Zarafa walked some 800 kilometres, on a journey from Marseille to Paris, in about six weeks. It was a strange procession: she was accompanied throughout by two exotically dressed men, her Egyptian carers, and a herd of a hundred cows that provided her with milk. The procession drew hordes of people who came from towns and villages to behold her in amazement. Once in Paris she was the rage of the season and was treated to an official reception by the court of the king. The sweet, cuddly creature became such a fashion hype that women sported jewellery and hairdos à la giraf. Those who had admired the giraffe at the zoo might have bought one of the purses as a souvenir, or the pattern, to make one themselves.
Purses and love
Purses and letter cases were often given as a present of love or a wedding present. One of the Tassenmuseum’s rare examples is a green, leather wallet embroidered with gilt silver thread and mounted with a gilt frame.
The inside reveals a tiny portrait of a beautiful, young woman dressed in a fashionable empire line dress and painted in 1806. The portrait is signed and dated by the French miniature painter Favorin Lerebour (ca.1773-?).
Incidentally, do you not think the young woman looks a little sad? Perhaps her husband was a gadabout or because of the Napoleonic wars had been called up to fight at the front. She wanted to give him something, her portrait, and something else. This could be the reason that she herself embroidered the love poem under the portrait. The poem is of course in French: the language of the European elite at the time, and the language of love:
“Que de mon Amour pour Vous
Ce portrait soit la gage et l’assurance
Mais mon coeur en seroit jaloux
S’il vous consolait de l’absence."
Even the English translation sounds extremely romantic. ‘This portrait is proof and assurance of my love for you, but my heart will be jealous if it reconciles you in my absence.’ You need to think about it for a moment - what she hopes is that she does not need to be jealous of her own portrait, but that by looking at it, he will long to see her again. Passion may be timeless, but such a poetic message still comes across more powerfully than an email or text message.