Object lesson No 59 Handbags

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Forget liberte, egalite, fraternite. The real legacy of the French Revolution was the handbag. New politics made new fashions. Of course, women got by before the barricades. In the 14th century they hung life's necessities from decorative girdles around their waists. Smells, suitors and Satan were kept at bay with pomanders, daggers and rosaries.

This belt-and-braces approach carried on until the 16th century when soft leather, velvet or satin pouches joined the collection. By now, though, men had had enough. Abandoning pouches, they turned to pockets sewn into their breeches, laying down a clothes line that 500 years later still distinguishes the sexes.

For a while women followed suit, kitting themselves out with pockets through the 17th and 18th centuries. These were not built-in like men's, but sewn on to a cloth band tied around the waist and hidden under full-skirted dresses.

Perhaps we would still be rooting around in these pockets were it not for those French revolutionaries. The events of 1789 ushered in a vogue for slim, high-waisted dresses, a neo-classical look that harked back to ancient Greece. Bulging pockets would have spoiled their body-hugging appearance

So women, after flirting with using their cleavages for storage, started carrying a bag called a reticule, or "indispensable". And so it was - if you accept that existence is impossible without rouge, face powder, smelling salts, visiting cards and fans. Indispensables were often made of silk and decorated with metal threads, ribbon, net and gauze. All gorgeous and all completely unsuitable for the British climate.

By 1815 outdoor varieties had appeared, including one made of leather with a metal catch, flap and handle. This was the first true leather handbag.

It was not the first use of the word, however. Men had been staggering around for years under the weight of suitcases they insisted on calling "hand-bags". It was in such a receptacle that the hero of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest was found. As Lady Bracknell put it: "To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to..."

Well, yes, we do.

Stephanie Northen

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