Many women pride themselves on their handbag collection or at least have a selection to match their best frocks – but hands up who can compare with Melanie Fearon?
When it comes to accessories, Melanie has surely earned the “Bag Lady” title – in the nicest possible way of course – with enough embroidered clutches, shoulder-strap beaded numbers and fashionable feathered affairs to put, well, surely everybody else in the shade.
The 77-year-old from Newcastle has been collecting bags and purses for about 25 years, and now her private collection of vintage treasures is being shown off to the public in a special exhibition opening in Gateshead today.
To Have and To Hold will run at Shipley Art Gallery until June 8, which means Melanie’s Jesmond home is looking comparatively bare, as those lovely bags had been adorning her walls, filling spare space and even been on display inside a clear-top table.
“I do miss them!” she tells me.
But she admits it’s a struggle to find space for her 200-plus bags (she’s not sure exactly how many she has) which span eras and fashions.
What has always appealed most to her is the history behind them and the stories she imagines about previous owners of, for instance, the hand-made ones.
Melanie, who was born in Manchester and has lived in London, moved to the region when her surveyor husband took a job here more than 50 years ago
It was while the pair were at an antique fair that she saw the little red bag that would start her collection.
She explains: “Years ago, my husband was interested in antiques but I’d get very bored and would wander around then, one day, I saw a little bag and fell for it – and he bought it for me.”
Then she bought four together from a collector at a fair in Yorkshire – and she was off.
Where she bought them never mattered. “What interests me is women’s lives,” she says. “That is why I like them. They reflect the times.”
Her niece, Gael Henry, who is a fashion lecturer at Northumbria University, is curating her exhibition and said: “As Melanie’s niece, I was always aware of the collection, but over the years my fascination grew.
“I was inspired to create this exhibition, to explore and share these exquisite items.”
And, like her aunt, she has been reading a lot about the history of handbags.
A chainmail design, for instance, is a nod to the advent of steel after the Industrial Revolution, says Melanie, while news of man walking on the moon prompted silvery, reflective designs.
Her earliest is a dainty 18th Century bag. “It’s absolutely minute. I wonder what would you put in there – a dance card, a hankie?”
Adding to the appeal of their historical context are telling signs of wear that intrigue her.
“Some are very grubby and people say ‘why don’t you have them cleaned?’ but it shows how they’ve been used – sweaty little hands may have held it at a dance!” Among home-made examples are those reflecting the trend when Bakelite handles (pre-plastic) were available, and the done thing was to make your own bags to attach to them.
One home-spun creation is imaginatively made from the ring-pulls of Coca Cola cans; another features, rather sinisterly, a swastika: “It’s black and embroidered with a gold swastika. It’s not very good – probably hand-made by a young girl,” suggests Melanie.
Others are personalised with details of where the wearer has been: “One has ‘Amsterdam’ on it; another has a sphinx on top and one has an elephant”.
Then there are Art Deco and beaded examples, bracelet handbags (handy for dancing) and lots dating from the 1950s.
Often Melanie will spot lookalikes in period dramas: “Sometimes you see them in Downton Abbey or in Cranford,” she says.
Melanie has used her party bags on occasion, as have her two daughters: “When they were in their 20s they would borrow them for parties, like the black ostrich feather one.
“There would be black for funerals and white for weddings, and I got a black one.”
Now it’s her 11-year-old grand-daughter who is an admirer, and has made her two additions to her collection.
She still receives bags as gifts but buys fewer these days, not least because they are rarely the bargain buy they used to be. “I will if I see something lovely, but not for the sake of it.”
She adds: “You find bags are not very easy to collect. They don’t wear well.
“People collect compacts and hat pins, but handbags get throw out.”
A handbag can give a real personal insight into a woman and is considered an all-important possession.
Most will know that heart-stopping moment when they realise their handbag has been lost or stolen.
With changing times has come the rise of big practical bags, but what has never altered, points out Melanie, is the idea that a woman’s bag is a private possession; which she addresses in a new poem she’s written called An Unwritten Law.
“I think a handbag is the only thing that a woman has that is completely private.
“Nobody goes into a woman’s handbag.”
Does she have a favourite among her collection?
“I suppose you could say one which was made by English soldiers at Gallipoli while in prison; 1914-15.”
Her father was at Gallipoli so it struck a chord.
“They shared doing it and it’s made from very small beads. It’s very neat.”
A lot of men away at war or in the Navy would make bags as gifts for girlfriends, she says.
With so many people sharing a passion for handbags, To Have and To Hold will no doubt be a hugely popular exhibition with enough intricate design and expert craftsmanship to delight the most fastidious followers of fashion.
Students, tutors and graduates of the design department at Northumbria University, which is a collaborator in the show, have been inspired by the collection.
They have created new work and research, reflecting the significance behind everyday objects, and drawings and photographs will be included in the exhibition, as well as a selection of extra bags from the collection at Discovery Museum in Newcastle.
And visitors may also like to know there is to be a Bag Swap next month so they can freshen up their own collection with a mutual exchange.
This will take place between 6pm and 8.30pm on March 20, with the Bag Swap proper getting under way at 7pm.
To Have and To Hold can be seen between 10am and 4pm daily (5pm Saturdays) except Sundays and Mondays at the gallery in Prince Consort Road. Admission is free.