By Stephanie Bolmer
Ilene Hochberg Wood’s obsession with purses started at a young age when her mother gave her her very first one. Little did they know that gift would turn into a lifelong passion which has led Wood to acquiring the largest private handbag collection in the world.
“From the time I had my first purse, I was enamored,” said Wood, reflecting on how her journey began. Her personal collection started building in college, when she became an intern in the fashion industry and first had an income of her own. She coveted the designer handbags her co-workers were buying and saved up all semester to purchase one of her own. Sadly, she didn’t quite have enough for the top “it” bag of the moment, but consoled herself with what she calls the “second-best” at that time.
Regardless, “I felt like I had ‘arrived’ as an adult fashionista,” said Wood. “I still have it, though I don’t actually wear it, but it’s kind of a touchstone. It was ground zero on the collection.”
That collection has grown over the last few decades from one bag to over 3,000. While it started as something for her own personal enjoyment, Wood’s interest in handbags as anthropological artifacts led her to learn more and more about them over the years. Through much research, she has become an expert on the deeper stories that these seemingly simple objects tell.
“Hand bags provide coded messages. They’re a way for women to sort of announce who they are and identify other like-minded people in a crowd, based on something as simple as a handbag,” explained Wood. “It isn’t deliberately set up that way, but it seems to work like that.”
And sometimes the message is deliberate, with women announcing their economic status through bags that are only available to an exclusive few, the way that men might do through a designer watch or tie.
But Wood’s collection is not full of only bags of the upper echelon of fashion. She has collected specimens of every possible variety in her quest to unearth the psychology and art of the handbag.
“A handbag reflects the social environment at the time,” said Wood.
Giving examples, she contrasted the styles of the 1920s, when women were first feeling independent and gaining mobility and would carry only a little flapper bag with a wrist handle or long shoulder strap containing a compact, lipstick and money, versus that of the 1980s, when career women traversed the big city with huge bags carrying work materials, running shoes and even laptop computers.
“Handbags evolve with the changes in the culture and reflect the most simplistic needs of women, who use them to carry whatever they find essential for their daily life. Because of that, women choose different sizes and designs,” explained Wood.
This sociological expression found in an accessory has led some, like Wood, to collect the purses for preservation and study. There are currently only two handbag museums in the world, one in Seoul and one in Amsterdam. Wood hopes to someday start a third here in the United States, and there are plans for her to take her exhibit on the road to other already established museums in the future. For now, however, her collection has found a home in a collaboration with Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites and American on Wheels, the auto museum in Allentown. A special exhibit entitled “PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History” was opened on Oct. 11 and runs through April 30, 2020, at three different locations.
“We felt that we could work very well together,” said Wood of the partnership with Historic Bethlehem, an entity she has done presentations for before.
The largest part of the exhibit is in the Kemmerer Museum of Decorative Arts, where hundreds of Wood’s handbags are on display, categorized into different themes. The Moravian Museum displays focus on a selection of needlepoint handbags alongside examples of needlepoint from their own collection. And the America On Wheels installation features 150 automotive-themed handbags, which goes to show the vast extent of Wood’s overall collection.
Since the PURSEonality exhibit opened this fall, the story of Wood’s collection has gone viral worldwide through different media outlets picking up the story of the “Imelda Marcos of handbags.” Wood appreciates the publicity as a chance to get the word out about the public institution she hopes to form to allow her collection to educate the world.
“The more people who know about this, the more who will come to see it and enjoy and learn from it,” she said. “My objective is to get enough information out to the world at large and then credibly partner with others to do this.”