It is hard to understand Victorian era purses without first understanding Queen Victoria and her long rein over England. Her influence was so pronounced that it greatly affected styles and her middle class attitude was reflected in fashion.
Queen Victoria in all her lace and ribbons!
Queen Victoria reined from 1837 to 1901 and took over control of England at the age of 18. She was very headstrong and began rejecting the advice of her equally headstrong mother, who had a great deal of control over her life up to this point.
Prime Minister Lord Melbourne began to exert influence on her views until 1840, when Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert. They proceeded to have 9 children.
The Queen's values were reflected in the Victorian purse of this era. Life was relatively stable and England enjoyed expanding prosperity. Of course there was a wide discrepancy between the upper middle class and the poor and fashion was important to the "haves" as opposed to the "have nots".
There was a large variety of victorian purses popular during the rein of Queen Victoria so generalizations are needed. Needle skills were valued and this was reflected in decorative designs in beadwork and ribbonwork. Magazines that gave instructions on how to make these bags were very popular.
Knitted bags and chatelaine bags became the rage around 1870 and melded beautifully with women's fashionable dresses at that time which were slim fitting. The chatelaine bag was hung either from the wrist or the waist.
When women traveled, a large bag with a metal frames called the Gladstone bag after Queen Victoria's Prime Minister William Gladstone was used. This was an example of a specialized bag for a special need and some popular Victorian purses were used exclusively for going to the opera as well as traveling toilet bags.
The Victorian purse encompassed many different styles over Queen Victoria's long rein but her own personality was incorporated in the fashion of her day. Her sensibilities gave England it's own direction in design as this prosperous country enjoyed it's rule over the empire of style.