A Visit To The World’s Only Independent Handbag Museum

Although it’s easy to think that the fashion capitals of the world are the center of the style universe, it’s important to remember that style exists everywhere. One such unexpected place is the ESSE Purse Museum in the SOMA neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. ESSE is only one of three handbag museums in the world, the only one in North America, and the only independently owned museum.

Esse Purse Museum

Museum admission is $10, which includes access to special exhibits. During my visit, I had the opportunity to view Cutting Edge, a mixed-media exhibit from artist Laura Fanning‘s paper fashion creations, inspired by the paper fashion movement of the 1960s. As the museum staff walked us into the gallery space, they gave a brief but passionate and knowledgeable overview of the exhibits. Their enthusiasm was contagious and set a lovely tone for my visit.

The collection, focusing on the 20th century, is divided into vignettes by decade. Each decade not only includes popular handbag silhouettes and designers of the time, but also the contents that might have been included in handbags during that period. I’ve included a few of my favorite items from the vignettes in the image gallery below, but overall it was refreshing to see that so many of today’s trends have plagued our stylish sisters of the past. Tiny sunglasses, I’m looking at you. It’s also interesting to see what recurring themes prominent fashion houses have continued, like Gucci or Hermes, and what silhouettes make cyclical appearances, like saddlebags.

Esse Purse Museum

In addition to the three editorial vignettes dedicated to exotic skins, evening bags, and travel accessories, there’s an interactive station where you can weigh your handbag. While I wasn’t surprised that my 3.1 Phillip Lim Pashli weighed in at an embarrassing eight pounds, it was a reality check of the strain that I am putting on my body. In my defense, the Pashli is quite a heavy bag, comparatively, because of its thick leather construction. Fortunately, I’m no longer carrying my laptop & DSLR camera around New York City, but I’m still carrying too much on a daily basis.

Depending on your level of enthusiasm and attention to detail, the museum could take you anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to view. Outside of the museum is a delightful gift shop, filled with unique handbag designs from independent designers, handcrafted jewelry, and accessories for the style-conscious. We drove six hours round trip to visit the museum and we weren’t the least bit disappointed in our experience. Following ESSE, we had lunch three blocks away at Community Bakery, a renowned local bakery with delicious sandwiches and fresh baked goods at reasonable prices.

Although the Cutting Edge exhibit has ended, ESSE’s next temporary exhibit focuses on bridal style from 1900-1980 beginning May 29 through August 19, 2018.

Enjoy the gallery of images from my visit below and if you’ve had a chance to visit ESSE, please tell me about your experience in the comments below.

About The Author

Thanks for stopping by! I'm Sarah and I love to write about my favorite plus size fashion and beauty finds.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. 8.24.18

    I’ve never visited this museum, but I will. I love hyper-focused museums. I’m the one stopping at the Hair Museum, the Barbed Wire Museum, the Bicycle Museum. I may go to Little Rock just to see this museum. Thanks for sharing.

    • 8.24.18

      Hi Rebecca, I’m so flattered that you stopped by! Please let me know what you think if you do make it. It’s a really lovely to spend a couple of hours and the surrounding neighborhood is charming as well. If there’s truly a Hair Museum, I need to find my way there ASAP. Maybe I should open a lipstick museum….now you’ve got me thinking!