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. From the early eighteenth century, fine steel needles were used to knit purses and small bags in patterned silk, and their workmanship was very fine. A small number of machine-knitted purses also began to become widely available.
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, reticule .The word was first used in the 1730s, but remained relatively uncommon through the 18th century.
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.
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.
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.
The tiny version of a reticule in our collection was used by a friend of donor Margery Saunders in the 1920’s and 30’s. Fitted to a finger ring, the small bag could hold a few coins and perhaps a key and would hang from the finger into the palm of the hand while dancing.