Janet's Vintage Finds

Vintage Purse Guide: The Reticule

Reticule

Guide to Vintage Purses: celebrating the reticule

Dainty drawstring bags called reticules were fashionable in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The term is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a woman’s small netted or other bag, especially with a drawstring, carried or worn to serve the purpose of a pocket.” As that definition suggests, the bags were initially seen as a necessity to make up for the absence of pockets in the slimmer, more form-fitting skirts and dresses that were becoming popular at the time. However, they turned out to be a forerunner of the modern handbag.

The name reticule is derived from the Latin “reticulum,” meaning “netted bag,” reflecting that the first bags were made of netting or loosely woven cloth.  In 1801, Catherine Wilmot wrote a letter in which she mentioned the bags, and the description was so apt that the OED included it in its next edition, according to the web site World Wide Words: “Reticules,” she wrote, “are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-Bons, Visiting tickets.”

The bags eventually caught on as a fashion statement, to be hung from the waist or carried. They began to be made from silk, velvets, handmade lace, or knitted materials and decorated with beads, tassels, fringe, lace and ribbons, according to The Reticule: A Fashionable Accessory in the Regency Period, posted by Jane Austen’s World. Jane Austen’s Emma Wodehouse and her contemporaries would have carried dainty silk or beaded reticules as their purses of choice.

19th century woman with reticule
Reticules were fashionable accessories in the fictional heroine Emma Wodehouse’s time.

Reticules were often elaborately embroidered with “beetlewing,” an applique made of iridescent spangles against black satin, according to Fabrics.net, which wrote about the history of the bag in its informative post, “Please Don’t Ridicule my Reticule! Purses from Clutch to Lug.” Victorian women were particularly fond of an offshoot called the money-miser or stocking or ring purse.

Reticule vintage purse
Reticules started out as a substitute for pockets. (photo from Jane Austen’s World)
reticule
The small handbags were often elaborated decorated. (photo from Fabrics.net)

Most bags in the mid-1800s Victorian Period  were made in Czechoslovakia, France, or Italy, notes Fabrics.net. They often featured brocade and beads woven into the fabric. Makers took great care with the bags, sewing beads individually with thousands of tiny stitches. Beads were made of a myriad of different materials, including glass, shells, crystals, amber, and coral.

1800's Antique Multi-Colored Beaded Reticule Purse Made in GERMANY
An 1800s reticule from NancysJewelryBox2 on Etsy.

Designs evolved into the 19th century, when many bags were crafted with ornate frames and chain handles. Following World War I, designers began to apply images directly to the fabric in an early form of silk screening. These are some of the most collectable bags from that era.

1920s flapper reticule
Reticules fit well with the flapper styles of the 1920s. (photo from SeeJaneSparkle.com)

Reticules remained popular into the 1920s. Bags with screen-printing or enamel zigzag patterns were especially prized by flappers, says Collectors Weekly. The style dropped out of sight for a while after that but reemerged in the 1950s, revived by stars like Ingrid Bergman and Jane Russell.

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman was reportedly a fan of the reticule in the 1950s.

Stay Tuned! My Vintage Purse Guide continues next week with a post about evening bags and clutches. In case you missed it, check out last week’s post that offers some tips on how to shop for vintage handbags.

In the meantime, take a moment to peruse these vintage bags listed on Etsy in the reticule style. Thanks for stopping by!

Beaded Purse | Antique Reticule Bag| carnival glass |Blue glass beads | Drawstring purse | iridescent glass | Something Blue
An antique reticule bag from ClassicEndearments.

 

Antique Evening Bag Micro Beaded Reticule Vintage Edwardian or Victorian Seed Bead Purse Art Nouveau Art Deco w/ Tassel
Vintage Carolina listed this microbeaded reticule from the 1910s.

 

Vintage Purse - Glasses Case - Sunglasses Case - Eyeglass Case - Cell Phone case
This vintage beaded crocheted bag could be used for a cell phone today. (Janet’sVintageFinds)

A Vintage Purse Shopping Guide

vintage handbags 1950s purses

Tips for Finding the Perfect Vintage Purse

There’s nothing like a vintage handbag to complement the right outfit. Whether it’s a dressy night out or a special occasion like a wedding or anniversary, a vintage bag can be the perfect accent. In Europe, some women are embarrassed to carry shiny new bags, writes Tina Craig of Bag Snob, in an article she penned for Harper’s Bazaar. Why? Simple: a vintage accessory sets you apart from the trend-followers. It marks you as someone who recognizes and appreciates classic styles.

If you don’t like the idea of buying standard off-the-rack purses from department stores, vintage bags may be the answer. They provide that special touch that separates you from the crowd.

But where do you find these perfect accessories? Ideally, you would have a stylish grandmother with a penchant for designer bags that she saved for future-you in a dust-free cedar trunk or closet. You could then browse through a selection of vintage classics with full confidence in the authenticity of each bag.

Alas, few if any of us have such fashionable and forward-thinking relatives. In reality, it isn’t always easy to tell whether a bag is old or just made to look that way. Classic bags from decades past by top designers like Chanel or Gucci are rare and expensive. You can usually identify those bags by their price tags—if the price doesn’t shock you, it probably isn’t the real deal. However, many attractive vintage bags made by lesser-known designers are quite affordable. And many genuinely vintage bags have no label but are of perfectly good quality and design. It comes down to how much you care about labels.

For many of us, the name brand really isn’t that important when it comes to vintage handbags. What matters more is how a bag looks and feels and whether it suits the occasion or outfit you have in mind. So how do you tell if a bag is vintage when the label is either obscure or missing altogether? You may never be absolutely sure but it helps to make a careful assessment before you buy. Here are a few tips for making a smart selection:

Trust your instincts. If buying in a store, carefully consider the quality of the materials and craftsmanship. If it feels light, cheap, or synthetic, it probably isn’t vintage. When purchasing online, look closely at the photos. Conscientious sellers post clear pictures of bags from multiple angles, along with close-ups of the labels, when present.

Ed Robinson Petit Point Purse | Robinson Petit Point Handbag | Petit Point Evening Bag | Vintage Purse | Needlepoint Clutch
Petit Point Purse listed by CarolinesKitchen. $249.

 

Black Clutch - Clutch Bag - Evening Bag
A 1950s vintage clutch on Etsy.

Read Reviews. Check up on sellers’ reputations and read reviews from previous customers. Look for trends. There can be legitimate reasons for one bad review but several customers expressing dissatisfaction should raise red flags.

 Feel the bag in your hand. If buying in a store, pick up the bag and hold it. If a bag feels light and insubstantial, it might not be vintage. Even if you’re buying online, check the description to see if it’s lined. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most Etsy sellers, myself included, love to receive queries and comments from buyers and we usually answer very quickly. One nice thing about Etsy versus a massive retailer like Amazon is dealing with individual shop owners who offer personal customer service.

Vintage Clutch - Black Beaded Clutch - Clutch Purse - Vintage evening bag
Fine beadwork elevates this 1940s clutch (Etsy).

Notice Details. Genuine vintage bags are carefully crafted. Look for quality workmanship in the stitching. Note whether the hardware looks cheap. Beads should be attached securely. Interiors should be fully lined.

Be alert to fake leather. Real leather is made from animal skin, which, like human skin, is full of natural imperfections. If the surface of a purse is perfectly uniform or smooth, it’s probably not genuine leather. It should also feel supple and flexible, not stiff or hard, and will regain its shape after being wrinkled.

Caterini Bidini of Bidini’s Fine Leather Handbags offers some useful tips on how to use your senses to make an educated assessment:

Vintage Leather Shoulder Bag - Vintage Purse - Vintage handbag - Vintage Bag
Vintage Italian leather shoulder bag on Etsy.
  • Real leather scratches. If you run your nails over the surface and nothing happens, it’s probably not leather.
  • Real leather has a “leathery” scent whereas fake leather might smell like glue or plastic.
  • Although you probably won’t want to spit on a bag in a store, it can be another way to eliminate fakes. Leather absorbs saliva whereas synthetic material will not.

 

Happy Searching!

 

 

 

Here are a few more great vintage bags listed by some of my fellow vintage sellers on Etsy:

1960s animal print handbag, leather clutch
1960s animal print purse from 86Vintage86

 

 

Le Regale Beaded Shell Clutch
La Regale beaded shell clutch from IsabellasVintage.

 

1960s Gold Lame Clutch Ornate Clasp Formal Cocktail Handbag
1960s Gold Lame Clutch from TrendRevival.

 

vintage purse lizard print leather brown handbag tote clutch 1960s 1970s retro
Vintage Lizard Print purse from MoiVintage.

 

  • Stay Tuned for my next post on vintage purse styles, starting with the reticule. Want to receive these posts in your inbox? Sign up here.
Scroll To Top