I first learned of the existence of that small lady’s handbag, the reticule, from the novels of Georgette Heyer. Later, as a museum curator, I had the opportunity to see a number of actual Regency-era reticules, both in person and in museum photographs. As I continued to research these often exquisite little bags, I discovered they had their origins in the late eighteenth century. Prior to that time, ladies carried their personal essentials in pockets under their skirts. Not in their skirts, under their skirts.
So, when and how did the lady’s pocket come out from under her skirt and make its debut as the reticule?
It is a curious thing, but what we today know as the in-seam pocket was an unknown concept until very late in the nineteenth century. From the Middle Ages until well into the eighteenth century. ladies carried their personal possessions in what they called "pockets." But these pockets where actually a separate undergarment which was not part of their outer clothing. Typically, a lady wore two pockets, each of which was a cloth bag, typically of even-weave linen, approximately ten to eleven inches tall and seven to eight inches wide. Each pocket would be seamed all the way around, with a slit of perhaps five to six inches cut in the center of the top layer. This slit would have a turned hem to prevent ravelling. The top edge of these two pockets would then be stitched to a ribbon or woven cloth tape, which the lady would then tie around her waist. She would have slits in the seam of her skirts which would allow her to slip her hands into her pockets to retrieve her personal articles. There is a certain convenience to this system, as one could leave one’s personal items in the pockets and simply put on the pockets and a fresh gown and be ready for the day.
Marie Antoinette is in part responsible for the evolution of the under-skirt pocket into the reticule. For much of the eighteenth century, ladies’s skirts were voluminous. They were made of thick fabrics such as damask and velvet, were very full, multi-layered and often supported by frameworks such as panniers. It was very easy for a lady to hide her pockets under so many layers of thick cloth. But in the 1780s came the rage for all things Greek. At about the same time, a rage for muslin swept Europe. Muslin was the perfect fabric from which to construct the free-flowing, high-waisted gowns which for eighteenth-century Europeans were the perfect reproductions of Greek women’s dress. These new muslin gowns were lightweight, their skirts requiring significantly less fabric and fit the figure fairly closely. Marie Antoinette popularized the fashion in France, and her friends Mary Robinson and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire brought the new style of gown to England.
The old-style under-skirt pockets could not be hidden under these elegant new-style gowns. The line of these gowns would have been spoiled by having pockets sewn into the seams of such lightweight fabric, even if the concept was known at this time. But ladies still needed a way to carry about those important personal items. And someone, almost certainly a woman, had the idea of bringing the pocket out from under the skirt. But pockets were made of white or natural color cloth of a simple, plain-weave, sadly lacking in any semblance of fashion. No self-respecting lady would have carried such a drab thing about with her.
Perhaps the same woman who brought the pocket out from under the skirt had the idea of embellishing it in order to give it a bit of style. The majority of these first reticules were covered with netting over a cloth lining, with a drawstring closure. It was this netted embellishment which actually gave these small bags their name. The French word réticule has its roots in the Latin, reticulum, which means a net-like structure. The reticule was instantly popular with all the fashionable ladies who could no longer wear their pockets under their skirts. Of course, as with any item of fashion, it was not long before these little bags were embellished with much more than netting. By the time of the Regency they might be made of lace or velvet, heavily embroidered with silk floss or fine silk ribbon, beaded with tiny glass or steel beads, and some were painted with floral designs or even pastoral landscapes.
No lady of the Regency would venture out without her reticule. In it she might carry her handkerchief, visiting cards, a hussif, a bonbonnière (comfit box), coin purse, vinaigrette or smelling salts (if she tended to the vapors), perhaps a small notebook and pencil, and on Sunday, her prayer book. There are one or two contemporary references to ladies carrying their fans in their reticules. But I find that rather hard to believe, based on the size of the contemporary reticules which I have seen. Most of them were seldom more than eight or nine inches from top to bottom, and most period fans which I have seen were over ten inches in length. My research would suggest that most ladies tended to carry their fans only to evening affairs, and wore them on their wrist, suspended from a cord. In some cases, on the same wrist with their reticule.
Early in the nineteenth century, the reticule was sometimes called the "ridicule." I have read modern research on the subject which posits that this was because ladies carried so much in these bags, over-stuffing them. But I suspect there was another reason for the advent of this derogatory term for the fashionable little bag. For, as I noted, all of the authentic Regency-era reticules which I have seen were relatively small. It should also be remembered that they were carried by ladies, who seldom had to carry more than a few personal necessities. All of the contemporary references which use the term "ridicule" were written by men. I believe they did so because they considered those personal necessities so important to ladies to be fripperies and thus they began to call the bags which carried them ridicules. Obviously these men were not sympathetic to the needs of the ladies they chose to disparage. However, it would appear that most of these men were simply ignored by the ladies.
The reticule did become larger during the second half of the nineteenth century, and certainly was frequently overstuffed. But in the years of the Regency it was small, elegant and fashionable. It allowed a lady to stylishly carry those important essentials when she was out and about. Men did ridicule the reticule from time to time, but the ladies refused to relinquish it.
For the other topics on which I have written recently, I was able to provide bibliographies because there were several published sources which contained substantial information. But the information on reticules is very scattered, and much of it was found over the years in unpublished papers and diaries which are not readily accessible. However, there are a few web sites which have useful information on the reticule. You can find a list of them here.