ESSE Purse Museum & Store is the culmination of owner Anita Davis’ dream of sharing her love of purses, art and history — while honoring women and their struggles, accomplishments, hopes and dreams.
The name ESSE (“to be” in Latin), which means essential nature or essence, embodies what you’ll find in the museum: that a purse is not just a utilitarian bag in which a woman carries her essentials, but an extension of her personal space — not a possession but a hallowed repository of the things that make her “her.”
Flamboyant or simple, tiny or enormous, leather or vegan — the choice of handbag tells much about the woman, and the wide variation in style through the years is reflected in the exhibits.
More than just a fashion history, ESSE shows the evolution of the 20th-century American woman — decade by decade — not only through the bags she carried but through their contents. More than a trip down memory lane or history lesson, ESSE Purse Museum is a don’t-miss experience.
ESSE grew out of a traveling exhibit selected from Davis’ extensive collection. From 2006 to 2011, “The Purse & the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” (curated by Curatrix Group and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services) traveled the country. The collection was exhibited in Concord, Mass.: Little Rock, Ark.; Edmund, Okla.; Columbia, S.C.; Pasadena, Calif.; Rockford, Ill.; Logan, Kan.; Fullerton, Calif.; Baton Rouge, La.; Dallas; Sacramento; and Seattle.
Now Davis has brought her handbags back to Little Rock for good and given them a home worthy of the part they have played in women’s lives and history. ESSE is housed in a historic building in SoMa, an up-and-coming, hip neighborhood in downtown Little Rock.
Women and men leave with smiles on their faces or tears in their eyes — often both — especially after experiencing the showpiece art installation created by architect Kwendeche and art director Steven Otis. You’ll understand why when you visit.
Photograph by Nancy Nolan