Attached at the Hip

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
February 6, 2024

For centuries, the chatelaine came in clutch, providing a solution for the often pocket-less garments worn by women. Though known by a variety of names, the piece became best known by the French term for the mistress of a chateau, as its design and placement at the waist of a wearer mimicked that of the key rings carried by such estate owners. Both functional and fashionable, the chatelaine played a prominent role in women’s fashion over time.

Notepad from a chateleine in MCHS’s collection (top photo). Notepad by Unger Brothers of Newark. Other elements by Wm. B. Kerr & Company of Newark.

Formally given its French moniker by The World of Fashion magazine in 1828, the chatelaine consisted of a medallion from which chains or cords were suspended. With the medallion affixed to the waistband of one’s skirt via a hook or brooch pin, its chains supported any number of small items that the individual needed at hand. During the height of their popularity in the 18th century, the utilitarian piece, then most often known as an “equipage,” typically included practical tools, such as a watch, pocket knife, notebook and writing utensil. Further prioritizing functionality, others were outfitted with instruments geared toward sewing, nursing, and other pursuits.

Chateleine of gold, enamel, and diamonds held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gaining renewed interest in the mid-19th century, chatelaines were transformed into fashion pieces. Previously made of pinchbeck, an alloy of copper and zinc, they were increasingly created using gold, silver, and precious stones.  Indeed, chatelaines were sold by nearly all leading jewelers of the day, including Tiffany & Co., Fabergé, and Lalique. As an adornment worn to balls and other social occasions, they could include upwards of 10 chains boasting fans or perfume bottles. The distinct sound they made when their wearer walked or danced provided further prestige.

Chatelaines continued to be a part of ladies’ ensembles through the early 20th century, although its popularity had declined as changes in fashion ushered in larger handbags and a desire for smaller adornments like brooches. As women increasingly found work outside of the home, the piece also proved too cumbersome to be conducive to everyday wear. However, through its early combination of practicality and artistry, the chatelaine was an integral “pre-purse-sor” for accessories to follow.