During the 17th century, dresses had full skirts; this made it possible for women to carry items such as smelling salts, mirrors, fans, and even small liquor bottles in their clothes without ruining the silhouette. To do so they used flat pockets, usually pear-shaped or oval with squared corners, which were tied beneath the skirt at each hip and could be accessed by slits in the skirt fabric.
It was not until the 1790s that fashions changed radically and bulky pockets became impractical. The popular new “Empire” dress was too sleek to conceal belongings; however, women were reluctant to give up the convenience of having their precious things readily to hand. The solution was to take pockets out from under the skirt and carry them by hand. Thus the modern handbag was born.