history of handbags, part 2

It has irked me to no end that women’s clothes almost never have pockets (or linings, but that’s another post). Why should we be left out? Erin over at A Dress A Day calls it the “handbag industrial complex” that has forced the pocket out of women’s clothing. My protest is only on principle of course, because I’d probably carry a handbag anyway, but it’s nice to have options, right? So imagine my surprise to learn that the origin of the handbag as we know it today is actually the pocket. Ah, delicious irony! Back in the day men and women both carried little drawstring pouches, which hung from the waist and housed one’s essentials. Of course, this system didn’t always work since the pouches were quite vulnerable to theives. The solution was to move the pouches to the inside of the clothing, with a little slit in the outer layer of clothing so you could get to your pouch without removing anything.

Everything was swell until the late 1700s, when the popular fashions for women slimmed significantly into the empire silhouette. Gone were the wasp waists and voluminous skirts that so expertly hid the pocket-pouches. Out of necessity, the pocket moved back to the outside of the clothing, and instead of being tied around the waist, was carried in the hand by a long strap, and heavily decorated in a way to indicate one’s social station.

This reticule is on display at the Victoria & Albert museum in London (one of my all-time favorite museums!), and is an English version from the early 1800s. The little pouches were dubbed “ridiculous” by the French press because they were essentially underwear made into outerwear, which is actually quite ridiculous when you think about it, even though we modern ladies are quite used to the concept (thanks Madonna!).

There you have it! Purses are really pockets that evolved away from the clothing. Next week we’ll discuss the leap from these sweet little embroidered fabric numbers to the structured leather bags that made Hermes famous (see last week’s history).


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