"It's also about what's inside": women's handbags tell a story

Some people like to collect stamps; others playing cards. But most people who own a lot of handbags don't do so with the specific intention of collecting them. However, for Czech architect Zuzana Ilinčevová, each handbag in her collection is a story of the woman behind it.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

Many women have likely been told by their partners or husbands that they have too many handbags. But when architect Zuzana Ilinčevová’s husband told her she had so many that she could make a museum out of them, she took him seriously.

“When my husband and I moved to a new flat that had a large cloakroom with shelves, I put all my handbags there and they all fell down. My husband saw the mess and said, ‘That’s not going to work, you need to sort this out.’ So I tidied everything up while he went to the theatre, but I hurried too much and everything fell down again. He came home from the theatre and said ‘My god, you could make a museum out of these!’ – so I said, ‘OK!’”

Zuzana Ilinčevová | Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

Starting with her own handbags that she had bought or inherited from her mother and grandmother, she gradually added to her collection, first of all by asking friends to donate theirs, who in turn asked their mothers, grandmothers, and friends to do the same. Then she started approaching more well-known women.

Asking to borrow the items did not always go as planned. Ms. Ilinčevová recalls how when she asked Dana Drábová, head of the State Office for Nuclear Security, for a handbag, she thought she was going to get thrown right out of her office at first. But she was able to save the situation by making her laugh.

The backpack of Dana Drábová | Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

“She said, ‘OK, but I don’t have any handbags. I can only give you a backpack.’ And I said, “OK, I’ll take the backpack. But I need a story with it.’ And she said, ‘It’s my work backpack. Thank you, I have to go now, good bye.’ And so we wrote the story just like that for the exhibition – we didn’t make anything up.”

Ms. Ilinčevová has been collecting handbags for over 10 years, and now has 412 in her collection, some of which can be seen at the Tábor City Galleries under the exhibition 'Příběhy kabelek významných žen' or ‘Handbags of Renowned Women and their Stories’. Some of the handbags on view are part of her personal collection; others have been borrowed for the exhibition and will be returned afterwards.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

“I tried to think how to make the exhibition interesting, so that the handbags would have some kind of story. Exhibitions are usually always in chronological order, starting with the oldest and ending with the newest, and I wanted to do this one differently. So with every handbag there is a story, and a short biography of the woman who owned or owns it.”

Ms. Ilinčevová says that for her, handbags are like architecture.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

“As an architect, I see them as works of art. And handbags are the only kind of artworks that have an interior – statues don’t have an interior, paintings don’t have an interior – but buildings do, and so do handbags. That’s another reason why I started to collect them, I think. It’s also about what’s inside them.”

The exhibition can be viewed at the Tábor City Galleries until September 4. On 20 August from 5pm there will be an opportunity to go on a guided tour led by the exhibition’s collector and curator, Zuzana Ilinčevová herself. Places are limited, so calling ahead is recommended. https://www.galerietabor.cz/pribehy-kabelek-vyznamnych-zen/