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Handbag 101: How The Handbag
Came Into Existence

By Delaney D, Apr 6, 2021

1800s fashion plate, courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Ever since people have had stuff to carry, there has been some

way to carry it. But handbags, as we know them today, didn’t come to fruition until the late 18th century. With the “Bridgerton” craze happening right now, it seems like the perfect time to examine the era that gave us the ultimate accessory: the handbag.

Pockets: The Precursor to the Handbag

To understand how handbags came into existence, we need to peer back in history to the mid-18th century. The fashion of that time was bold and extravagant; dresses with large skirts were all the rage. Thanks to the coverage these wide skirts offered, it was common practice for women to wear pockets underneath them. The pockets, which were separate garments, would be tied around the wearer’s waist (basically an 18th-century fanny pack). These pockets were accessible through slits in the wearer’s skirts, allowing women to keep their daily necessities on hand without forcing them to carry an extra accessory.

18th Century Pockets

Example of embroidered 18th-century “pockets,” courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

From Pockets to Handbags

As the 18th century progressed, styles began to change, and the once-wide skirts started to narrow down. The rise of the Chemise a La Reine ushered in a neo-classical influenced style that took hold in a major way. This gave way to the Regency era, known for Jane Austen and now the popular romance-novel-turned-Netflix-show called “Bridgerton.” Soon slender dresses made of thinner fabrics were all the rage. These dresses didn’t hide much, so the once clever hidden pockets weren’t going to work.

Women’s Dress

From left to right: a 1700s gown, a Chemise à la Reine, and a Regency dress
Images 1 and 3 courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum; image 2 courtesy of National Society Daughters of the American Revolution

The Bag… The Reticule

Enter: the reticule, the first handbag that established the accessory as a staple in women’s fashion. Though the term first referred to bags made out of netted material, it became synonymous with all kinds of purses. Generally, reticules were drawstring bucket bags made of fabric. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th-century, reticules evolved and took many different forms. This new medium allowed artisans to show more creative expression and skill. Many bags were heavily embroidered or beaded, while others were painted or decorated with appliques. For the most part, reticules were made of silk, but velvet and cotton were common as well. All kinds of women adopted reticules as they were easy to make and allowed women to showcase their embroidery and sewing skills. It was an easily accessible way to be fashionable without spending a fortune.

18th Century Reticule

Examples of a reticule, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (left)
and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (right)

Back to Fashion History

Some early reticules resembled its predecessor, the pocket, only now with a strap or handle. So when the reticule rose in popularity, so did criticism. The hidden pockets ladies wore were considered undergarments, so it was scandalous for them to be visible. It is worth noting that these pockets were often intricately decorated. Wealthier women could afford highly embroidered and embellished pockets. So there was already pressure for these new bags to be beautiful – especially as they would be seen on the outside. It is perhaps one of the first times we see the “innerwear as outerwear” trend.

18th Century Reticule

Example of an early reticule, Victoria and Albert Museum

How to Get the Look

Even as skirts widened out again, the reticule had made enough of a mark that it was clear handbags weren’t going anywhere. As time and fashion progressed, the handbag progressed with it. Get the look from Rebag by going for tiny drawstring bucket bags or embellished clutches and pochettes.

Judith Leiber Evening Frame Bag

Judith Leiber Evening Frame Bag

Saint Laurent Fringe Bucket Bag

Saint Laurent Fringe Bucket Bag

Chanel Vintage Tassel Frame Waist Bag

Chanel Vintage Tassel Frame Waist Bag