During Georgian and Victorian times, Chatelaines were considered an essential part of a married woman’s or head housekeeper’s outfit. Since the medieval era, ladies who managed households very often wore one. They were only known as chatelaines after 1830, before that they were known as an ‘equipage’.
Essentially, chatelaines were a decorative metal belt accessory which was worn at the waist, usually hung from a chain, from which household tools and practical items were hung. These items, called accessoires, nearly always included keys and could also be such things as a watch, household seal, a scent bottle, a coin purse, a pencil, a locket, a notebook, a pair of scissors, a pincushion, thimble or a sewing needle and thread etc. These accessoires were held in containers called nécessaires or, sometimes, étui.
The chatelaine signified the lady’s status as manager of the household and signaled to the servants, if there were any, who was in charge. The word ‘chatelaine’ literally means in French ‘mistress of the castle’. But it wasn’t always women who wore then, men did also, with appropriately masculine tools such as knifes and watches attached. Chatelaines could be made from gold, pinchbeck, silver or silver plate, gilt, copper, stamped metal or cut-steel. Some could be very elaborate with much cannetille, applique and repouse work. Mid 18th century models were often ornately embossed with Rococo scroll work. Sometimes, they had mother of pearl or agate panels. Enameled chatelaines, like this one, were less common.
Their role as either ornament or for practical use changed with the years. Towards the late Victorian era they were often worn more for decorative reasons or were even adapted for evening wear, with a place to keep dance cards and a fan. They were even considered a normal part of ‘formal’ wear. The general trend throughout the Victorian era was for chatelaines to become smaller. The Art Journal reported the following in 1883: ‘…the long and inconvenient châtelaine, with it’s noisy toys, has shrunk to the dimensions of a watch-chain and swivel, worn at the lady’s waist so as to show outside her dress…’ Chatelaines were still worn as late as the Edwardian era. However, they became to be seen as increasingly old-fashioned and cumbersome until their use finally died out altogether.
What I find interesting about the chatelaine is how an item that was once so ubiquitous and so much part of the culture could be all but entirely forgotten in the modern day. If someone from the Georgian or Victorian era knew that the chatelaine was no longer worn, it would almost be as strange to them as if we traveled into the future and found that the bracelet was no longer worn. It seems as though the decline of the chatelaine is tied in with the movement towards a more youthful and less responsible culture as well as a more streamlined silhouette. Perhaps the desire to be respected, to be seen as a ‘matron’ and someone in charge of a household was replaced with the desire to be seen as carefree, unencumbered and young. Regardless of the genuine reasons for the end of the chatelaine, they are still fascinating historic and artistic objects that are considered very collectible.
Here is some 18th century verse about Chatelaines by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
Behold this equipage by MATHERS wrought
With fifty guineas (a great pen’orth!) bought!
See on the tooth-pick MARS and CUPID strive,
And both the struggling figures seem to liue.
Upon the bottom see the Queen’s bright face;
A myrtle foliage round the thimble case;
JOVE, JOVE himself does on the scissars shine,
The metal and the workmanship divine
Sources / further reading:
Copyright © 2017 by Pippa Gaubert Bear and Elder & Bloom. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pippa Bear and Elder & Bloom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.