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There is no woman’s accessory more iconic than a purse. Functional and fashion-forward, they provide women with a stylish way to keep their most important items close at hand. Purses have a utilitarian purpose but they also are a symbol of status in the modern era. Most modern women wouldn’t dream of leaving home without her handbag by her side.
The tradition of carrying beautifully crafted purses began in the early 1800s. Although they weren’t used for carrying cell phones or car keys, it was still important for women to keep essential items close by when they left the house.
Read on to learn more about the history of handbags during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Purses During The Victorian Era
In the early 1800s, women needed a way to carry money with them when they visited stores or shops. Women’s dresses during this time didn’t feature pockets. Instead of a pocket, women carried pocket-shaped purses when they left the house.
But handbags didn’t become popular during the Victorian era only because of style. Victorian women were all about looking their best in public. An exquisite handbag was another way to show off her social status and enhance her overall appearance. More importantly, it was a place where she could easily store handkerchiefs, pencils, a fan, and calling cards.
Unlike today, purses were not mass-produced or sold in large quantities. Each one was carefully handcrafted. These delicate accessories were a thing of beauty. They often featured intricate embroidery or attractive embellishments.
A style of purse known as the Reticule was the most popular style during the Victorian era. These styles were quite small, and often only could accommodate a few small items. They were carried in the hand and were often flat and unstructured. In the mid 1800s, structured tube-shaped Reticules would come into fashion for a brief period of time.
The concept behind these purses was simple. But their appearance was anything but plain. Reticules were often decorated with glittering beadwork and trimmed in lace, ribbon, or silk. Fringe and tassels also made Reticules more visually stunning. Often created with cinched, drawstring closure at the top, feminine floral embroidery covered the exteriors. Many women created and decorated their purses to show off their needlework skills in public.
Later in the 19th century, more durable materials were used to create these important accessories. Fabrics like canvas or Merino wool were covered in a cross-stitch pattern, giving these Reticules a tapestry-like appearance. Patterns found in ladies magazines allowed women to create a variety of vibrant and eye-catching Reticules within their own homes.
Although we would perhaps like to think of “Fanny Packs” as a trend that debuted in the 1980s, their predecessors - also known as Chatelaines - became popular at the end of the 1800s. Incredibly admired in Europe, these bags were attached to a belt and hung from the waist. This allowed women to carry their belongings in a hands-free fashion. They were especially useful when women rode on horseback.
These beautiful bags may have the same function as a modern Fanny Pack or belt bag, but they were far more stylish. People preferred durable leather Chatelaines when travelling. Styles made from velvet and satin were more appropriate for everyday wear. These bags were often trimmed with silk cords, tassels, or fur accents.
Unlike Reticules, Chatelaines were not overly embellished. Instead, the simple design showcased the high-quality textiles and impeccable construction. Leather handbags eventually replaced Chatelaines. World War I nurses used a bag similar to the Chatelaine.
The Woven Basket
Lower class members of society often couldn’t afford to carry luxurious, embellished handbags when they went about their day. Large woven baskets were instead used to tote items to and from the home, market, or workplace. Although not as intricate as a beautifully beaded Reticule, this type of handbag was incredibly popular among working-class women in the Victorian era.
Made from materials like woven willow or elm, there were several types of woven baskets that were prominent during this time period. Some had lids and closely resembled a modern day picnic basket. Others had a deep, round, open shape that made them perfect for carrying flowers or produce to and from the market.
Although they were far more utilitarian than a fancy Reticule bag, working class women still found ways to make their woven baskets look special. If a woman had the means, she would accent her basket with ribbon, bows, lace, or pom poms. The inside of the basket could also be lined in velvet or cashmere to increase the luxury.
Purses During the Edwardian Era
During the Edwardian Era, purses only became more popular. They also started to more closely resemble the types of handbags that are still carried by women in the modern era.
The Updated Reticule
Reticules didn’t completely go out of fashion in the Edwardian Era. But their appearance did change to reflect the more modern period. The updated version was known as a “Dorothy Bag” and was often covered in beads. This type of bag had a long, crossbody strap, so it hung between the hip and the knee. Once again, these Reticule bags were beautifully decorated and featured tassels, embroidery, and other embellishments.
As the updated Reticule caught on with women, specialty bags were also designed to further fit their needs. Dainty silk purses with a delicate chain strap were known as “Opera Bags'' and accompanied women on special outings. Shoe bags with drawstring closure were known as “Dance Bags,” as they carried a woman’s heels on the way to and from a fancy ball. “Trinket Bags'' also featured cinch closure at the top and were designed to store and transport needlework and other household items.
In the 1920s, Reticules once again came into fashion. Their shape wasn’t very different from Reticules that women carried in the Victorian Era. But in the Roaring Twenties, these bags were often covered in geometric designs that reflected the popular Art Deco movement. Some also feature metal mesh exteriors. Mirrors were also included within 1920s reticules so women could fix their makeup when they were on the go.
During the Edwardian Era, people travelled more than ever before. No matter if it was by train or ship, luggage quickly became a necessity for the modern Edwardian woman. Carpet Bags became the carry-all of choice for anyone who was spending time away from home. Everyone - from upper class to lower class - used a Carpet Bag when they travelled.
As their name suggests, Carpet Bags were often made from leftover scraps of rolled silk carpet. Their base was large and the unstructured exterior made the inside incredibly large. At the top, two handles made from durable leather or wood made them easy to carry. A predecessor of the modern Weekender bag, Carpet Bags even have a place in pop culture history. Mary Poppins, a classic Disney character, was known for carrying a magical Carpet Bag.
At the end of the 1800s, women’s handbags became a staple in the world of accessories. Victorian dresses featured billowing skirts that could easily hide pockets - and their contents. As silhouettes slimmed in the Edwardian Era, women required a specific place to keep their wallets, handkerchiefs, and other essential items.
Leather-goods companies like Louis Vuitton and Hermes were used to producing rugged items made from high-quality materials. Their women’s handbags eventually became so popular that it turned these companies into high class fashion houses. These upscale handbags were made from exotic materials like alligator, ostrich, and crocodile leather. They were also dyed opulent colors and had strong, masculine silhouettes - a departure from the ultra-feminine Reticule style.
Own Your Own Vintage-Inspired Handbag
One of the easiest ways to add class and sophistication to your favorite outfit is adding a purse that is inspired by the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Our collection of stylish handbags have an opulent, timeless quality that will instantly capture your imagination.
This elegant evening bag is inspired by the Victorian Reticule. It features a beautifully beaded exterior, a long crossbody strap, and a clasp at the top that will keep your contents securely inside when you take to the dance floor.
For an elegant, unexpected accessory that will set your look apart, this Victorian-style bag is an excellent choice. Authentic details like glittering embellishments, cinch closure, and tassel accents make it look truly timeless.