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Our purses, our selves
'The Purse and the Person' exhibit offers bags full of previously undocumented women's history

By Ellen Snortland

My inner women's-history geek leaped for joy when I found out that the Pasadena Museum of History is highlighting the most public and personal possession that a woman has: her purse. Men need not feel excluded since many men now carry purses too. I know, I know. Just as boys' dolls are called "action figures," to avoid the dreaded taint of "sissified" toys, some men may cringe when their "bags," whether they are briefcases or knapsacks, are referred to as purses, but purses they are nonetheless! Hey, GI Joe is a doll, OK? A briefcase is a square purse.

I would like to encourage people, men and women alike, to get out and see the "The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women's Purses," exhibition. You have until the end of March -which also happens to be Women's History Month - to take a stroll down history lane from the perspective of our purses, our selves.

If you don't carry a purse, you at least are intimately related to a few purse carriers. A purse may well have been your first toy, since most mothers know how entertaining they are to a child - girl or boy.

Why would the PMH displaying purses be a source of delight to me? As a women's history buff as well as museumgoer, I know all too well that women get short shrift. For example, women artists are vastly underrepresented in fine art museums. As the famous "hit and run" artist activists the Guerrilla Girls, aka "the conscience of the art world," have pointed out, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female."

By the same token, it's rare that women's lives and cultural artifacts get front and center stage, or in this case, the main display rooms in a museum.

Traditionally women's lives have been considered less valuable, and by extension less interesting, than men's. We therefore don't occupy as much space in our collective storytelling, whether that narrative is in the form of column inches, movies, television, books or museum curating. After all, a society documents that which or those whom it respects. Said another way, history is written by the victors. Museums are showcases of history and women have gone missing in many historical accounts.

As writer Jenine Baines noted in her article about "The Purse and the Person," in the Jan. 31 edition of the Pasadena Weekly, one of her male colleagues exclaimed incredulously, "An exhibit about purses?" You most likely won't get that reaction from a woman or girl; they know the richness and vital natures of their hand "baggage." The exteriors of our purses announce who we are (or aspire to be), and the interiors contain the most intimate aspects of our lives: secrets, keys, birth control, contact information and finances.

For some men, purses are emblematic of women's frivolous natures. Oh, but just wait until they need a tissue or wonder if we can carry their keys for them! No wonder they carry their own now.

Thanks to the volunteer efforts of professional photographers Rob Greer, Gilda Davidian and Terry Miller, "The Purse and the Person" exhibit adds a local perspective (pursepective?) through custom posters and a slide show of local notables and their purses, including popular actor and activist Jane Kaczmarek; former Assembly member and state Senate candidate Carol Liu; LA Times columnist and natty dresser Patt Morrison; Doo Dah Parade Queen Naughty Mickie; and the first woman Tournament of Roses president, Libby Evans Wright.

There are too many others to list here but, in a nod to recent purse history, also included are several men who are secure enough in their masculinity to display their purses, er, briefcases: Sheldon Epps, executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse; Raul Rodriguez, award-winning float designer and HRH Andrew, Duke of the Doo Dah parade. All of them has a narrative about what their purses means to them.

Behavioral scientists say that smell is one of the most emotionally evocative ways to remember someone or something. I remember the smell of my mother's handbag in the '50s like it was yesterday. It smelled like Revlon lipstick and a slight dusting of talcum powder. Viewing the purses on display at the PMH was strangely powerful: the women's movement expressed in all our decorative, utilitarian and yes, sometimes frivolous styles. We carry our history, our bags and lives on our arms and shoulders with pride.

"The Purse and the Person" is at the Pasadena Museum of History through March 30. The museum is located at the corner of Orange Grove Boulevard and Walnut Street. Parking is free in the museum lot. Exhibit hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Suggested donation is $5. Children under 12 are admitted free. For additional information, visit or call (626)577-1660, ext. 10.

Pasadena Weekly: 2/14/08

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