The Rise of the Vintage Drawstring Reticule Purse


For several centuries, women did not exist independently in the society. Shopping in department stores or stopping by a cafe for a latte were not yet common pastimes for ladies. Because of this lack of independence, women’s clothing did not have any pockets sewn in for carrying things such as money.

Prior to the popularity of the purse in modern fashion, women wore hidden pockets underneath their wide skirts. The pockets were little pouches attached to a belt and were worn underneath the dress. Small slits in the dress allowed access to the pockets.

Women often made pockets for themselves or as gifts for close acquaintances. Intricate embroidered designs often adorned these handcrafted pockets.

A popular etiquette book titled Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order by Theresa Tidy, suggested that a woman should use her pockets to carry her handkerchief, needle, thread, and thimbles.

Like all fashion, the hoop skirts that hid this style of pocket were bound to fall out of favor eventually. In the 1790s the voluminous skirts began to disappear in favor of skirts that fell closer to the body.

The Regency fashioned columnar skirts left women without a way to hide their pockets and thus, without a way to carry their intimate possessions.

As a response to this need, women began to make small drawstring purses called “reticules.” They were also called “indispensables” because they were not big enough to fit much beyond the basic necessities.

The word “reticule” comes from “reticulum,” the Latin word for “net.” This was because the early reticules were made from a net material.

As it gained in popularity, the reticule was often constructed from silk, satin or velvet. There are many examples from later in the 19th century that were crocheted or beaded.

Although this precursor to the modern purse was eventually accepted as a fashion trend, some initially viewed it with blushed-cheek embarassment. As Caroline Cox writes in Bags: An Illustrated History,

These early handbags were also daring, one of the first examples of underwear as outerwear—and thus for many a rather absurd affectation. The idea of a woman parading her personal belongings in a visible pocket was an act akin to lifting up her skirts and publicly revealing her underwear.

As the 19th century came to a close, women began to enjoy the freedom to stay outside the home for longer periods of time. As a result, purses gradually became bigger. Despite the changing trends, reticules remained in use into the 20th Century.

Reticule purses are special in that they can be closely reproduced by the modern maker using vintage and new patterns and a little dedication. A quick internet search for patterns will unearth some gems!

What do you think about reticules as a style statement? Would you make one for your wardrobe? Let me know in the comments below!

If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between gender roles and the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, be sure to check out this episode of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast.

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