Terminology: What is a reticule or indispensable?

A reticule is a small drawstring bag carried as a purse by a woman in the 18th and early 19th century.  It was also used as a synonym for any kind of purse or handbag carried by a woman.



The name comes from the latin reticulum, meaning a net or mesh bag.  It entered English, as so many fashion words did, from the French, in this case, réticule.



The word was first used in the 1730s, but remained relatively uncommon through the 18th century.  The Memoirs of the Reticule states ” I am not aware of any mention of the reticule until after the French Revoluton.” At the end of the 18th century, as fashions changed from full skirted dresses that could easily conceal pockets, to slim garments of light fabrics that would show unsightly bulges over pockets, that reticules came into their own.  Easily made, easily carried, they were the indispensable accessory of the last decade of the 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th.  They were, in fact, so very indispensable that they were also known as indispensables.


Reticules might be indispensable useful, but they weren’t beyond reproach.  Older women continued to prefer pockets, and reticules were seen as being almost risqué, because they were essentially pockets, and thus an undergarment which was suddenly carried on the outside.  One could liken them to corsets in the modern world – while it is acceptable to wear a corset as evening wear, it’s still a bit suggestive, and certainly not appropriate for conservative dress.  Reticules were also condemned for being masculine, because men carried their money and other items outside their dress, in pocketbooks and bags, and women hid their items away in pockets.  Now women had a purse of their own that could literally be passed from hand to hand (and the obvious metaphor of pockets vs purses especially when your purses are the usual reticule shape all becomes a little well, obvious and weird about this point).


Even if not scandalous, the idea of women carrying their private belongings externally, in their hand, was considered ridiculous.  The Almanac des Ridicules, 1801, begins with a little rhyme about reticules and their ridiculousness to the effect that a woman looses her reticule, and wants to post a sign - “don’t do a thing, says her husband, you will always have enough ridiculousness.”  Reticules were already widely known as ridicules by this time.


Although reticules ceased to be as important as fashion accessories once styles changed, and stiffer handbags, and full dresses with pockets, came into fashion as the 19th century progressed, reticules were still used, both as fashion items, and as a term to designate a specifically feminine carry-all.  In 1867 a small dictionary was entitled: The Reticule and Pocket Companion, or, Miniature Lexicon of the English Language.  A male user would carry his edition in his pocket, but a woman, rather than having a purse, would have a reticule to carry hers in.  


One of the many advantages of reticules was how easy they were to make.  Stiff leather purses required special tools and strong hands, and were the provenance of leather workers, but any seamstress could make a reticule. The 1831 American Girls Book, or, Occupation for Play Hours, has a whole chapter devoted to reticules, with instructions on ten different varieties, from a ‘melon shaped reticule’ to a ‘pocket book reticule’ .


While the drawstring bags were never at the height of fashion again, reticule was used to describe small handbags and drawstring workbags into the early 20th century.



So… when did we start having PURSES



Today’s designer handbags have a long and storied history.

Early Europeans used handbags just as we do today—to store personal belongings needed for the day. Because clothing had no pockets until the 17th century, men also carried handbags for things like coins, alms, and relics.

Worn attached to a belt, this 16th-century buckle bag had 18 secret compartments. For the aristocratic gentleman, it was a status symbol.



The First Man-Purse?

The sporran played a similar role in the highlands of Scotland—part utilitarian, part symbol of wealth and status.

 Ahhhhh …Brawny men in kilts…

with their sporran.  This is the small pouch worn with traditional kilts that perform the same function as pockets on a pocketless kilt.

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Sometimes made from… ahhh…. ahhhh….. what was I saying???

Worn by interesting Scottish men….    Ok….. moving on……   

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A 16th-Century Messenger Bag?

As pockets became an integral part of clothing during the 17th century, men no longer needed to carry handbags for anything other than the bulkiest of items—books, documents, and letters.















Chatelaine Bags

From the 16th century, women often wore a decorative clasp at the waist with a series of chains attached, called a chatelaine. Suspended from it were useful household accessories such as scissors, keys, and sewing tools. Crafted from precious metals, chatelaines were considered as jewelry and status symbols.












Reticules or Indispensables

17th- and 18th-century ladies preferred to carry their particulars in small bags with drawstrings that were known as reticules in France and “indispensables” in England.

Lady from 1830 carrying a reticule
















Using embroidery skills learned from a young age, ladies created designs of great artistry and beauty.











The Dawn of the Designer Handbag

The Industrial Revolution brought steam railways and travel became increasingly popular.


In 1841, Yorkshire entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson, whose Butterscotch confectionary was appointed to the British royal household, wanted to treat his wife to a custom-made set of hand luggage.

He had noticed that her purse was too small and not made of a sturdy enough material for traveling. So he had leather handbags made for her in varying size for different occasions.


 Besides durability, Parkinson wanted to distinguish his luggage from that of lower class passengers.


London-based luxury leather goods company H. J. Cave & Sons was more than happy to oblige. Its Osilite trunk became so famous that it won several prizes in the 19th century, including first prize in Paris in 1867.

But most importantly for Mrs. Parkinson, she got to own the world’s first designer handbag.


H. J. Cave’s designs are known to have inspired Louis Vuitton (1857) and a young Guccio Gucci (1910).


Heres some good examples of the classic reticule.

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The end of the ‘reticule’ actually comes with the invention of the purse ‘handle’.  It was the end of the drawstring.



























































And probably the thing that sets apart the ‘modern’ purse, or handbag, is that modern women… carry stuff.  Sometimes and amazing amount of stuff.

























Purses keep getting bigger….











And bigger….



To carry our amazing amount…. Of ‘stuff’

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012