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Review: "Handbags" by Judith Miller

Upon first inspection, the cover of Judith Miller’s new book “Handbags”, with its magnificent red Lucite, scalloped front unmarked Wilardy bag, held great promise and elicited a major pang of envy! The 400+ examples included in this title are beautifully photographed and well chosen. The volume is compact and convenient for on-the-go study. The $13.95 price is certainly reasonable; especially given the high quality of the paper and precise, clear reproduction of the images. Within the back cover’s definition as “The perfect price guide for those who desire the ultimate accessory,” the book is successful. It lives up to and exceeds most of its stated goals as a fashionista guidebook.

There are, however, some significant shortcomings. Sold as “a perfect price guide,” the imprecise 5-star valuation system rates the majority of bags shown 1 star ($50-200) or 2 stars ($200-500). Such wide ranges hardly provide even a ballpark valuation and so give little guidance for collectors.

Of greater concern for those who might consult the book are the significant errors in fact and editing. Several of these are completely incomprehensible, as if no one looked! The French cut steel beaded bags on pages 94-97 are identified improperly as metal mesh. One is even used as the feature bag for the metal mesh section of the book!

Page 227 displays a clear close up of a bag lining showing a makers mark and Patent # 2484838. The logo is clearly Dorset Fifth Avenue DorsetProducts, whose merger with Rex Fifth Avenue in 1951 formed Dorset-Rex. Not only is the logo identified incorrectly as Dorset-Rex, the story of the formation of the company is ignored.

(The patent 2484838 was filed Jan. 17, 1947 by Kurt Goldstrom and covers the classic metal strip woven construction of one of the most popular metal and Lucite styles of the late 40’s and early 50’s. Details of the patent are available online at the US Patent office.) Patent #2484838

Other errors, as I see them:

Page 61: 1960’s beaded bag dated early 20th century.

Page 62: Green beaded 1940’s bag dated 1920’s (see Dooner’s “Plastic Handbags,” page 118).

Page 82: Beaded bag attributed Native American carries the circa 1900 Nordic cross flag of the Iceland Republican movement known as the Hvítbláinn and Scandinavian designs on the reverse.

Wikipedia reference on the History of Iceland
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_flag

Page 185: This beaded French bag is undoubtedly beaded onto a flexible clear vinyl, not through hard Lucite. I sold the identical bag in blue stain and, based on close examination, I believe it to be 1950’s. Not a whole lot of handbag making was going on in Europe in the 1940s!

Page 195: Bag is valued $500-1000, but a nearly identical celluloid frame with no bag attached was auctioned online in October 2005 for over $1500.

Page 251: Top white Lucite bag misidentified as Bakelite, bottom molded acetate bag misidentified as Lucite.

Undoubtedly the most significant shortcoming is the apparent unacknowledged lifting of facts from pages 9 and 55 of Kate Dooner’s “Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear.” Miller provides details of the founding of Llewellyn, Inc. on page 231, the later founding of Miami Handbags and Patricia of Miami as well as Morty Edelstein’s connection to these events on page 241, all facts clearly derived from Dooner and included without recognition. Also, new investigations into trade publications of the time call the stated facts into question.

Kate Dooner may have been mistaken about the formation of Llewellyn AND Miami Handbags, and by asserting the questionable facts without attribution; Judith Miller has compounded the problem. (See footnote 1)

Questions for the Author:

Ann Marie of Paris created inspired surrealist sculpture in the form of handbags. These are prized by collectors and, depending on condition, auction for $400-$3600. Her work is dated post-WWII by Doyles New York Auction House and by Anna Johnson in her book “Handbags: The Power of the Purse,” pages 424 and 425. I would love to know more about Judith Miller’s page 185 assertion of a 1930’s date and that Ann Marie’s Champagne Bucket bag “was made as a gift for VIP residents of the Ritz Hotel, Paris” in the 1940’s.

There are two examples of the 1950’s 3-Way bag shown on pages 314-315 and 347. The latter is properly attributed to the Lowy & Mund’s Spotlite line, which held the 1957 patent on the 3-Way mechanism seen on both bags Pat. #2809685.

Why was the connection not made between the two examples? Why is the example on page 314 shown under the heading “Beaded & Embroidered” when it is neither?

Bottom line: “Handbags” by Judith Miller is the latest in a long line of books on the subject that prioritize style over substance. The lack of bibliography, imprecise dating, and lack of reference to fashion history are huge drawbacks. The 5-star price guide is all but useless. In the book’s favor stand its excellent photography, convenient size, useful index and reasonable price. While this reviewer appreciates the effort involved in producing a liberally illustrated book of this type, there seems to have been little effort exerted to do more than entertain.

The US handbag industry is a jewel of American Capitalism. Tiny, immigrant-established family businesses evolved into international fashion dynamos, creating works of art that are the envy of the world. The preference for picture books and the lack of rigorous research has relegated this area of fashion history to a hobby and has overlooked the significant contribution of US handbag makers to art, entertainment, politics and commerce. As a result, handbags have never been properly integrated into fashion history. “Handbags” by Judith Miller could have been a scholarly reference. Instead, like most of the books on the subject, it’s little more than eye candy.


FOOTNOTES

1) If Fre-Mor merged with Jewel Plastic to form Llewellyn, Inc. in 1951, as asserted by Dooner, why did Fre-Mor continued to produce bags at a different address and advertise its own lines well into the mid-1950’s?

While the relationship between Fre-Mor and Llewellyn is unclear, the connection between Miami Handbags and Florida Handbags is downright murky. Every bag example used in Dooner’s chapter on Miami Handbags is actually a marked Florida Handbag. Morty Edelstein is listed as President of the Miami Handbag, Jewelry and Accessories Association and head of Miami Handbags in a news story in the March 1955 issue of Handbags & Accessories. Sarah Kahn is listed as the newly elected Secretary of the group and representative of the Florida Handbag Company! Miami Handbags and Florida Handbags are TWO DIFFERENT COMPANIES! If Florida Handbags and Patricia of Miami were both lines manufactured as separate lines within Miami Handbags, why is Patricia given its own chapter while Florida Handbags are illustrated only in the Miami Handbags chapter? Where are the marked Miami Handbags? What was the relationship between these companies?


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