Esse Purse Museum

She’s Got the Whole World in her Purse

‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Arkansas anymore…’

Like a small-scale South of Market, San Francisco, Southside Main Street – also known as SoMa – Little Rock, Arkansas is undergoing its own cultural revival, and the Esse Purse Museum is spearheading the renaissance. With a current, temporary exhibit celebrating the trials and triumphs of African American women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Esse Purse Museum continues to pay homage to women throughout history via the most valuable vignette of everyday life – the handbag.

Esse is Latin for ‘to be,’ and one might say that if a woman’s essence were to be summed up on the spot, you could start by dissecting her bag – a reflection of her style and of her everyday necessities. This is the concept behind the Esse Purse Museum, where visitors can revel in the nostalgia of the purses they used to carry or learn about vintage styles they’ve never seen before. Anita Davis, the founder of the museum, as well as the pioneer behind the SoMa neighborhood improvement project, says that the museum is as much a trip down memory lane for her visitors as it is a purse-lover’s haven.

The museum opened in 2013, after Anita took her vast collection of bags on a traveling exhibit and simply needed to find storage space. The Bernice Building, where the Esse Purse Museum is now housed, was purchased after the SoMa neighborhood had already begun to show signs of a spring awakening, but the effects of the museum on the neighborhood were apparent. As the museum became more popular, small, boutique-style cafes and shops started to open, inviting more people to hang out and enjoy themselves in what was once an almost derelict part of the town. Now, the neighborhood is home to colorful cafes, vintage shops, and other cultural attractions that one might not expect to find in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Esse Purse Museum was even named as one of the world’s hottest museums by the Huffington Post.

Davis continues to scour vintage markets and pick up pieces whenever she travels. She favors whimsical, playful designs and is particular to the 60s collection in the permanent collection of the museum. Amongst some of the most iconic and most popular bags among visitors are a black wool Ingber & Co. purse from the 50s with an oversized safety pin, Lucite evening bags, a snakeskin Judith Leiber, and an orange-and-white André Courrèges shoulder bag. When reviewing the trends in fashion history, it’s easy to see why designers continue to be inspired by these original, vintage designs.

The museum also hosts events to bring more patrons and to create a forum for enthusiasts and creatives alike. This month, the Esse Purse Museum will be hosting ‘An Evening of Style,’ where students of the Arkansas Fashion School will get a chance to show their latest designs. With a runway show and speeches from AFS and Little Rock influencers, the event is sure to be an exciting evening of style and inspiration for students, designers, and aficionados alike. Past events have focused on social issues, trunk shows by up and coming designers, and receptions for new exhibits.

Like many museums, Esse has a gift shop that offers not only the typical museum swag, but also one-of-a-kind purses that can be purchased for a unique souvenir as well as a droll accessory. Davis, who continues to be very hands-on in the museum, says that she likes to carry obscure designers that you might not be able to find at your typical department store or boutique. Bags scale on a wide price range, so visitors from all walks of life might be able to take home their own token of the museum, and the designers come from all over the world. Anya Sushko, a Russian designer, sells her leather bags at the museum gift shop. Her bags are colorful, utilitarian, and hard to find; Davis says that the Esse Purse Museum is one of the only places in the United States that sells her designs. Amongst the other international gems, visitors might find designs from the US, Poland, Portugal, and neoprene designs from Italy. “Fashion trends vaguely affect the museum,” reports Davis. She says she is more concerned with finding unusual bags that are handmade and high-quality.

Davis laughs a little as she reminisces about the museum and the growth of her cherished neighborhood, remembering that her main concern at the time was storage, and that she even felt a little unsafe in the neighborhood just years ago. She loved the neighborhood and knew she wanted to do something. Inspired by international cities, and even her own upbringing in an even smaller town, Davis knew that SoMa was bound for something more, despite resistant residents. Now, as men and women come to enjoy the museum from all over the world, the Esse Purse Museum has become a beacon, and SoMa residents, like Dorothy waking from a dream, are dazzled by the utopia that is now their hometown.

Text by Leah Tassinari

Photograph by Heather Collins