Bags of Style

For fashion brands, the humble carrier bag is transformed into a canvas for creativity, a mobile billboard and a highly collectible cultural artefact. But its days may be numbered

The carrier bag transforms our streets into “the site of a kinetic sidewalk exhibition of graphic design, one that embodies the drama and hustle-bustle of commerce”.

This vivid image was suggested by curator Richard B Oliver in a 1978 catalogue for a ‘bandboxes’ and shopping bags exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York.

In it, Oliver traces a history of bags from those bandboxes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (papercard boxes used to carry hats and other accessories, often covered in wallpaper swatches or memorable images acting as advertising), when affluent shoppers had purchases delivered, through to today’s carriers and their combination of function and brand communication.

“The old fashioned delivery boy has been replaced by a bag that embodies many of the same intimations of status. Carrying a smart bag has become the contemporary equivalent, although considerably diminished, of the smart delivery van,” he writes.

A strong visual impact is key for brand awareness and visibility with a memorable, beautiful or playful design in terms of colour, graphics, materials, and even size. “The memorable bags of today are also a by-product of what many people regard as a revolution in graphic design which occurred in the 1960s. All at once, or so it seemed, many ordinary products of everyday life … sprouted new and vivacious graphic qualities,” Oliver writes. “No longer was it enough to print merely the name of a store on a bag. The surfaces of a bag could portray the image, tone and quality of a store, institution or product through such various devices as the use of discreet, elegant typefaces, or lush, seductive pictorial illustrations.”

So, above and beyond their straightforward functional purpose, bags are a status symbol for consumers and stores. Many also see them as portable works of art which, combined with their value as cultural artefacts, has attracted the attention of collectors the world over. Aside from museums such as the Cooper Hewitt and other large archives including the Special Collections Division at Newark Public Library, collectors of bags tend to be fans of ephemera – lovers of design artefacts that they see as too good to throw away or stick in the recycling bin.

“Unless you’re a schoolboy sharing or swapping in the playground, collecting something that’s meant to be collected feels a bit soulless, odd to me,” says type designer Gareth Hague, of the Alias type foundry in London. “As a collector of ephemera, of bags, swing tags, sugar cube packets, club flyers, those cheap plastic cracker toys, I think there is value in keeping things that are usually thrown away…. bags are a record of their time, in graphic design, materials and production values, and saving that is a valuable thing.” Hague started collecting as a label-conscious teen, who was interested in design and ‘things’. “A yellow rectangular plastic bag with a vertical New Man logo is probably my first one,” he says. “They had a great logo by Paul Rand which read the same way upside down. As I found out later, this was ‘graphic design’.”

Design conscious bag ladies and bag gents specialise and edit their collections, to ensure they don’t become overwhelming. But most, it seems, keep them carefully stored under the bed, and few have documented or catalogued these collections for public view.

One who has however, is LA-based shopping bag collector Courtney Lichterman who curates her collection in an online archive called the Bagatelle Museum. She started collecting during her time as a student studying in Paris, but began with business cards, which she would pick up whilst wandering the city streets, using them once home to map where she had been. “They were like little works of art and came in all these interesting shapes and paper stock weights that really weren’t being used in the US; some were embossed, some were printed in gold,” she says. “One day a shoe store I went into was out of business cards so they offered me a shopping bag that had the store’s address on the side. It was absolutely beautiful so I started asking stores for bags instead,” she says.She now collects whilst shopping or travelling, adding to her collection with purchases on sites like eBay, but only as a last resort. “It kind of goes against the idea of appreciating something that can’t be bought. Besides, I like the happenstance of it and the thrill of the chase,” she says. “It’s amazing how many I’ve just found…. I have a Diane Von Furstenberg bag that looks like it’s been in a street fight, but I just couldn’t resist picking it up when I saw it in the middle of the road. I acted like I was rescuing road kill from a highway. Even I would admit it was a little ridiculous.”

So what do these collectors believe makes a truly great shopping bag? “I guess the obvious answer is something that’s beautifully constructed … but personally, I like something that’s either indicative of the time in which it was used or is somehow connected with a fleeting moment or even actually reveals a bit of history,” Lichterman says. “I think [well designed bags are] kind of a message that the store, the designer or whoever, is carrying the experience of shopping there from beginning to end,” she says.

Hague concurs: “Some are beautiful, in terms of design, printing and material. But that isn’t why I collect them. Beyond this they record the care people, stores and brands take in presenting what they do and how this changes,” he says.
From classic high-end stores to indie brands to obscure Ukrainian boutiques, both Hague and Lichterman have diverse collections.

“I have bags from the 80s and 90s for brands such as Selfridges, Gucci, Versace and Burberry before their various (dramatic) makeovers,” Hague says. He also prizes bags with unusual materials or production methods including “Miu Miu’s bubble wrap bags, Margiela’s cotton bag … a stitched quilted-effect plastic bag for D&G…. At the opposite end of the scale I have great coarse brown paper bags from Thailand with dodgy printed pics of Madonna, Snoopy and cartoon strips. But the strength of the collection is being able to compare the differences.”

Lichterman’s collection even extends across centuries, and includes a glove wrapper from Macy’s from the 1800s. “There’s a little message on it that says, ‘Customers will please report at once any incivility or inattention on the part of any employee of the house.’ I just love that because I can picture all these women in hoop skirts buying gloves and men in top hats walking with them and reporting incivility and inattention,” she says. “My all-time favourite is a Jean-Paul Gaultier bag that’s shaped like a Parisian news kiosk. It’s a bit risqué if you really give it thought but I don’t care – I think it’s amazing.”

As consumer activity changes, turning away from the high street and towards online shopping, what future does the shopping bag have? “For the higher-end fashion brands, offering a retail luxury experience through their physical stores, I think we’ll continue to see that luxury and specialness in their bags,” Hague says. “Generally, the increase in online shopping, reduced budgets and the awareness of eco issues have definitely made a difference. There is and will continue to be an emphasis on reusing and reusable bags, in having to pay for the bags you use, and on not having a bag at all,” he believes.

“I think between online shopping and concerns about the environment, we’re very close to shopping bags being a thing of the past entirely,” Lichterman says. “That’s part of what I like about them – in a few years they’re going to be like rotary phones or leg warmers, although I think those are back, aren’t they?”

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