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Bags are not a new invention, as long as humans have had items to carry, we have created bags in which to carry them. As early as 38,000 BCE, hunter-gatherer, humans were using bundles and pouches made from fibers to store and transport food and tools. The drawstring purse was worn dangling from a belt by both men and women from at least the time of Ancient Rome to the Renaissance and beyond. The woman’s handbag as we know it, however, is a much more recent development in the long, humble history of the bag.
Prior to the invention of the handbag, women carried necessities in pockets. But, unlike men’s pockets, which were part of a man’s garment, a woman’s pockets were an entirely separate garment, worn tied around the waist under her skirts. The large volume of women’s skirts made it easy to hide the bulk of pockets. This changed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, as high-waisted gowns gained popularity.
Because of the slimmer silhouette of the new style gowns, it became a grave fashion faux pas to wear bulky pockets beneath one’s gown. Pocket-lines were the panty-lines of the 1790s and no fashion-forward woman would be caught sporting them. With the death of women’s pockets, came the birth of the women’s bag.
The precursor to the modern handbag was the reticule or the indispensable, as it was sometimes called. The reticule was a small bag, only large enough to carry rouge, powder, a fan, perfume, and a few visiting cards, but women quickly took to carrying them whenever they went out. Not everyone viewed the indispensable as quite so indispensable, however.