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Reticules: Regency handbags and gladrags

A Regency woman, her reticule tied around
her waist, imagined by Victorian artist
Charles Henry Turner
Lately, I’ve been thinking about “synchronicity” – the idea of meaningful coincidences, a concept explored by psychologist Carl Jung. 

It started a few weeks ago, when I came across a little treasure on the shelf in my local library, a book called Handbags, What Every Woman Should Know, by Stephanie Pedersen.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of purses, including information on the reticule, a type of purse that every well-dressed Regency woman had to have. 

And as the book traverses fashions in accessories through the centuries up to the modern era, it touches on New York fashion designer Kate Spade and her trend-setting handbags that became such a hit in the early 1990s and beyond. And then, just after I finished the book I heard about Spade’s untimely and very sad death, earlier this month

So I thought a post on handbags, especially Regency ones, might be a way to pay a tribute to her and her impact on modern fashion.

In her book, Pedersen quotes Spade as saying “I’ve never thought of style as something you invent, like trying to come up with the proverbial better mousetrap. I think style is part of the way we live . . .”
Silk knit reticule with glass beads,
metal chain and clasp, 1810-1820

And here’s where the Spade handbag and Regency reticule overlap. Her handbags were both stylish and useful, and an accessory coveted by fashionable women everywhere. And, in their time, so were reticules.

A reticule is simply a pouch-like handbag. Some are even drawstring bags, much like the little suede bag that I used for toting marbles around when I was a child. 

Reticules became a fashion necessity because of the new style of clothes women wore during the Regency.

During previous centuries women’s skirts were very full, sometimes ridiculously so, thanks to hoops and petticoats and other nifty undergarments that kept the skirts afloat. 

Dressmakers cut slits into the side seams of these gowns and petticoats to allow the wearer access to a hidden pocket tied around the waist. That way women could discreetly carry a few items with them when they went out.

French fashion plate, 1798
However, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries dress silhouettes slimmed down drastically as fashionable women tried to look like classical Greek statues. Women wore diaphanous, high-waisted gowns that revealed rather than obscured their figures, especially the lower half.

Suddenly there was no room for any kind of pocket in their gowns. So, out of necessity women carried their belongings in a pocket-like purse, and the reticule was born.  

Some of these reticules looked barely big enough to hold anything, though in my imagination I can see a Regency woman tucking a small mirror, an ivory comb, a tiny embroidered piece of linen to catch her delicate sneezes, and perhaps a few coins into her reticule. 

As a side note, according to Pedersen the current Queen Elizabeth, who’s never seen in public without a purse, carries a tube of lipstick, a comb, a small gold compact and a handkerchief in her bag. Other sources add mints, reading glasses and family photos to that list. I guess the Queen of England doesn't need to carry cash or credit cards.

Reticules remained popular in one form or another, and a fashion fixture, for decades. These little purses could be beaded, fringed or embroidered, made of steel mesh or tapestry, and closed with silken cords or silver clasps. 

Flappers of the 1920s even had ingenious vanity cases and cylindrical "necessaires"- tiny purses that were just big enough to hold some makeup, "mad money" and a few cigarettes. These elegant accessories featured chain handles, wrist straps or even finger rings to make carrying them easier while dancing the Charleston. 

Queen Elizabeth with her handbag, 2015
Since the Regency era reticules have been invoked by purse designers many times. Hippie chicks of the 1970s carried crocheted or patchwork drawstring bags, and echoes of the reticule can still be seen in the evening clutches and pocketbooks with wrist straps that women carry today.

As for me, I used to carry small, strappy beaded purses in my teens and early twenties, but I started using diaper bags when my sons were born and I haven’t been able to downsize to a small purse since. Carrying everything from bandages to snacks around with you “just in case” is a hard habit to break.

I’ve yet to see an example of a Regency diaper bag, but who knows, perhaps one day I’ll come across one in another library book!

In the meantime, I can’t complete a post called “handbags and gladrags” without a reference to the song Rod Stewart popularized in the late 1960s. This tune was on his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, a title which, because of its reference to clothing, I think I can count as yet another bit of synchronicity.

* * *
Sources used for this post include:

  • Handbags, What Every Woman Should Know, by Stephanie Pedersen, a David & Charles book, United Kingdom, 2006 
  • Fashions of the Roaring ‘20’s, by Ellie Laubner, Schiffer Publishing, LTD, Atglen, PA, 1996

Images and photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Maureen, I used to think history was just about irrelevant dead people, whose influence evaporated along with their ghosts into the hereafter. But, the connections you make with the past bring history to life, and – even more – reveal that what we have in common with our predecessors is about continuity of a thread through time that shows we are not that different from them at all. Modern life – of cell phones and on-demand TV, supermarkets and online shopping – political demagogues and "fake" news – is but a reprise of the past and certainly a benchmark of the future. Thanks for the history lesson, bringing the past into the present and a preview of the future.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I like your imagery of a thread through time linking us to our predecessors and revealing what we have in common with them. That's exactly my aim in writing this blog!

  2. I'm with you Maureen! I have a big purse, which I feel "naked" without. It has everything I could possibly need for a day away from home. Sometimes I pare down to a smaller one when going on long walks. I wouldn't make a good Regency woman! My purse could eat at least four of those reticules for lunch!

    1. I know what you mean. And when I do try to switch to a smaller purse, I always forget something that I need. Thanks for your comment!


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