Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pockets and Ridicules

This month we welcome guest blogger Althea Mackenzie. Althea is Curator of Costume at Hereford Museum and Curator of the Wade Costume Collection, National Trust. She has a wealth of knowledge about all those sneaky questions that authors and readers have always wanted to ask about what Georgian and Regency people wore and how they wore it. Today, she's blogging about pockets and reticules or -- to use that lovely word of the period -- ridicules.

Over to Althea:


Our relationship with our bags and the 'essentials' housed within is not dissimilar to the relationship between the 18th century lady and her pocket. The nature of the essentials have changed slightly to include the mobile phone, but Henry Leigh Hunt's description in 1812 has some resonance:

'In one is her handkerchief, and any heavier matter that is not likely to come out with it, such as the change of sixpence. In the other is a miscellaneous assortment, consisting of a pocket-book, a bunch of keys, a needle-case, a spectacle-case, crumbs of biscuit, a nutmeg and grater, a smelling-bottle, and, according to the season, an orange or apple, which after many days she draws out, warm and glossy, to give to some little child that has well behaved itself.'

Frying Sprats with a large pocket
In a period when opportunity for privacy and security of personal property was limited, the pocket was an ideal solution, sitting as it did close to the body under the petticoat and the gown and only accessible through the pocket slits.  However, pockets were not totally secure as was shown by the number of convictions for crime associated with pockets - pockets being targeted by pickpockets or used for transporting stolen goods.

The radical change in fashion that took place at the end of the 18th century/early 19th century has often been associated with the emergence of the reticule. 

Boilly Checkers 1803
Such a revealing silhouette based on classical simplicity with high waistlines and skirts that fell close to the body and legs didn’t lend itself to a bulging pocket and yet so many of the dresses still have pocket slits. In 1809 in ‘Celia in Search of a Husband’ the young girl is asked ‘What is Fashion?  To which the reply is ‘fashion is not to wear pockets’.

A splendid reticule in a 1790s print

The speed to which women could have access to changes in fashion had been revolutionized with the growth of the printed word.  Access to materials was equally revolutionized, as was the emergence of a wage-based population who could shop. Gradually in museum collections we see the representation of a wider slice of society, not just the very high end of fashion but a combination of radical followers of fashion and the more conservative, such as those advised by Theresa Tidy in ‘Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order’ who wrote in 1819:

'Never sally forth from your own room in the morning without that old-fashioned article of dress - a pocket. Discard forever that modern invention called a ridicule.'

It looks as if dresses were made with pocket slits regardless of whether the individual continued to wear pockets or carried the new-fangled reticule, or indispensable, for those essential items.

A beautifully embroidered pocket

Thank you, Althea. Fascinating stuff. I expect you'll get lots of comments and questions from our blog visitors.



Anonymous said...

Apologies for weird font. Not at all what I thought I had done. Will try to fix but unfortunately cannot do so till this afternoon.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoyed this past, Althea. It's a treat to have the low-down on the humble pocket, and the embroidered one looks a really sensible size. It's deep enough for things not to fall out and roomy enough to allow the contents to spread a bit and not bunch up awkwardly.

It looks as though the pocket is tied on separately so you can transfer it plus contents to sit underneath a different garment for the next day. Am I right?

I can see that would be really useful. Perhaps we should bring it back into fashion.

Jo Beverley said...

Thanks, Althea. I've been giving my Regency heroines pockets for ages. A pair of pockets was a plot point in one of my books, put aside when the lady changed her clothing.

I have sometimes felt like the odd one out, but I felt sure that under casual dress, which was often quite full in the skirt, they'd continue to use them. Even now, most women don't go around with a bag for their bits and pieces. When I find myself in clothes without any pockets it's a nuisance!

Anne Stenhouse said...

Very interesting. Thank you. anne stenhouse

Anonymous said...

Funny fonts and font colours fixed, I hope.

Helena said...

I like the idea that a lady could carry a reticule for most of the things she needed, but perhaps also wear a pocket or two for more private or valuable items. The reticule could act as a distraction, in that a pick-pocket might conclude that she wouldn't be wearing pockets.