So far I’ve been reading about fashionable clothing, but clothes often have friends called accessories. These can be all manner of handbags, hats, scarves, jewelry, and hosiery, ornamentation on clothing, and shoes. Accessories can make or break an outfit. This week I will be taking a closer look at some of these accessories starting with handbags.
Handbags are known by many names: handbag, bag, shoulder bag, clutch, pocket book and purse among many other names. The term “purse” was originally considered quite vulgar as it was used as a reference to female genitalia. It was considered quite an insult to call someone a purse. Likewise the term “bag” was also considered improper. The phrase “old bag” referred to a woman past her child bearing years. Both the terms purse and bag later were accepted as referring to women’s handbags and seem to have lost most of the negative connotations associated with those words. Regardless of what you call your bag, it is a vital accessory for most women.
Bags have been popular almost since the beginning of civilization. They became a necessary accompaniment as people began to trade things. Bags were used to carry items for trade and items acquired through trading. Bags also carried coins used to trade. In the beginning of the history of bags, it was men who carried the bags (and the money). This is also reflected in the art world where men and male creatures are shown to be holding what looks like bags.
(Image credit: Ancient Code)
(Image credit: Knitting It Together)
Early bags were made of animal hides that usually had some sort of drawstring attached. Eventually these bags could be attached to men’s waists by being hung on girdles and later belts. At this time in history a woman was expected to remain at home and take care of her household which was often referred to as her castle. So you see the phrase “A man’s home is his castle” would actually be more accurate if it said “A woman’s home is her castle.” Women caring for their castles began wearing chatelaines. And later the lady of the home was herself called a Chatelaine.
(Image Credit: Unknown)
The chatelaines were attached around a woman’s waist and held small useful objects such as keys, scissors, nail files, and other routinely used household objects.
Around the sixteenth century, men’s clothing began to sport pockets in which they could carry things and not necessarily need to carry a bag. Women’s clothing, however did not include pockets. Not wanting to be left out, women sewed their own “pockets” and attached them with ribbons to their clothing. Women’s pockets were detachable, thus the nursery rhyme:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.
Pockets now allowed both men and women the luxury of storing items in their clothes. Later women abandoned their voluminous long skirts in favor of long slender skirts. Women no longer wanted to carry around the big bulky pockets that worked so well with the larger skirts. At this point (c. 18th century) women abandoned their pockets and began to carry bags. The first women’s bags were called “reticules.” They were often made of velvet and silk and embellished with ribbons, tassels, beads, chains, and other objects. The velvet and silk reticules were often associated with elite women and became quite the status symbols. Other reticules were crocheted or made from cloth and embellished to look expensive (possibly the first handbag knock offs).
(Image Credit: Unknown)
In Britain, these bags became known as “indispensables” while in France they were called “ridicules” in their early days. The word “ridicules” evolved from the Latin root “ridere” from which we get our English word “ridiculous.” Thus the bags were the subject of some good humored joking in France – and probably the source of men’s ribbing of women’s handbags ever since. The word “ridicule” evolved into “reticules.” The word “reticules” was used in English and French until 1912.
Reticules, which were small and dainty bags, presented women with the opportunity to highlight their mastery of textile arts. Through the 1800’s women embellished their reticules by knitting, netting, crocheting, , and embroidering. Items embroidered on the reticules where often highly symbolic and extremely varied. They could range from a coat of arms to nature scenes. Often fancy reticules were given as betrothal gifts and became precious family heirlooms.
(Image Credit: PicClick)
(Image Credit: Etsy)
With the Industrial Revolution came changes for women’s bags. At this time in history many women entered the workforce for the first time. Many worked in offices and factories. Women also began traveling more and had the need for larger bags to accommodate what would be needed for long trips. Larger leather bags with handles were designed and carried in the hand, rather than draped from the shoulder like the reticules. As more and more women entered the workforce their handbags changed rapidly and no one thought of them as ridiculous anymore.
Women’s handbags continue to reflect social situations, culture, and fashion. They also have an air of intrigue and secrecy. Most men have been taught NEVER to go into a woman’s handbag uninvited. To a woman this is akin to an assault on her person. Most women have some things in common in that they carry similar items in their bags. Most women will carry money, keys, a phone, and grooming items which could include but are not limited to cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, and hair styling items. All women carry other things as well. These things could range from something to read to specific items needed for a given day. There are “secret” things in a woman’s purse known only to her. Perhaps she is hiding a gift for someone in her bag or maybe she is carrying around important pieces of mail that she will need to deal with. The possibilities of what a woman’s purse contains are limitless.
Ever since pockets and reticules, women have been in love with the idea of having a way to carry necessities. In 2018 8.5 billion dollars was spent on handbags in the US alone. Handbag sales are sometimes eclipsed by the sale of jewelry although they are fairly competitive. There are all sorts of women’s handbags. Some are serious and business like,
(Image Credit: Ebay)
some are casual,
(Image Credit: Rosegal)
some are dressy and fancy,
(Image Credit: Dillard’s)
and others are whimsical and novel.
(Image Credit: PurseBlog)
Though I’ve given a brief overview of the history of handbags, there are still so many interesting things I’m not able to include in this blog post. I encourage anyone interested to check out these books:
The next accessory book that I picked up was about hats. Hats have been a near constant accessory to clothes in almost all cultures and countries. Hats accessorize both men and women’s clothing.
In his book Hats: Status, Style and Glamour Colin McDowell explores hats through the ages dating as far back as ancient Egypt. This book is loaded with historical facts which, unfortunately, I won’t have to time to get into in this post, but if you are interested in hats at all, this is the book for you!
McDowell covers hats of all imaginable descriptions beginning with kings and their crowns. Other types of hats (and/or headgear) discussed include hats in church, religious hats, political hats, military hats, hoods, berets, sugar-loaf hats, and turbins. In addition to the various types of hats and histories, McDowell covers hat related topics such as hat humor, hats and hatmakers, specialty hats for stage and screen, sports and magicians, and chapeaugraphy just to name a few of the great topics. I found the sections on hat etiquette and status quite interesting and how hats were (and are) used to convey social status.
Another interesting read is Buttons: The Collector’s Guide to Selecting, Restoring, and Enjoying New and Vintage Buttons by Nancy Fink and Maryalice Ditzler.
Buttons can be unique fashion accessories as well as highly sought after collectibles. This book explores the history of buttons and their classifications. Button classification generally falls into groups depicting materials used to make them: Fabric and Cloth, Metal, Glass, Ceramic, Enamel, Natural Materials, and Plastic. Buttons are even an art form so buttons can be considered wearable art. Like hats, buttons are associated with artistry, sociology, politics, and history.
Do you have a favorite type of accessory? Do you collect buttons? Were you aware there was so much history associated with handbags?