Chatelaine accessory; silver thimble holder

Chatelaines are a waist accessory worn by women. Chatelaines were first used in the 17th century to allow women to wear a watch attached to their waist. Basically, a large flat metal tongue or hook fits over the waist. On the front of this tongue or hook is a decorated plaque and smaller plaques are attached to that with spring swivel attachments. Generally, a watch was attached, plus a watch key, seals and little trinkets (called ‘breloques). However, other versions had a large central container called an ‘etui’ with two smaller ones hanging on each side. These were used to carry toiletries or cutlery, and items used for sewing and writing. Sometimes, women would have two waist attachments – one for the watch and accessories, the other for the etuis. According to Genevieve Cummins, an expert on chatelaines and watches (among others things), the word ‘chatelaine’ was not used to describe these items until 1826.

Chatelaine accessory: silver scissors and case

During most of the 18th century, the style of women’s dresses comprised a waisted dress with two side panniers or side hoops, which extended the gown out each side but which left a flat front from which could be hung chains and other decorations. Towards the end of the century, though, women began to wear high waisted gowns made of delicate fabrics. The style of chatelaine changed from a chain hooked at the waist to a lighter chain which was tucked over the waist band, with a watch at one end and tasselled ends at the other, though smaller watch hooks were also still being used. This style continued throughout the Regency period.

Chatelaine accessory: notebook with silver embossed cover

It was towards the end of this Regency period that the name ‘chatelaine’ was first used, inspired by the medieval term for a French women who was mistress of a large chateau, wearing her keys to the chateau at her waist.

Chatelaine accessory: silver envelope for stamps

Chatelaines continued to be worn during the Victorian period, becoming popular at all levels of society. Clothing styles had changed again and dresses were once again worn at or slightly lower waist level. Skirts became fuller, with lots of petticoats. The crinoline, which was a structured petticoat with hoops embedded in it, became popular in the late 1850s, to be replaced in turn by the crinolette and the bustle in the 1870s. Chatelaines comprised the hook, with plaques at the front and various chains with attachments such as pencils, perfume bottles, notebooks, thimbles, needle cases, fobs, seals and a watch. They continued to be worn up until the end of the century although they had become less ornate. Pendant watches and lockets and brooch watches, together with watches and watch chains became popular until the first world war when fashions changed again and the wristwatch took over as a fashion accessory.

Chatelaine accessory: silver pen holder (pen missing)

Genevieve Cummins, who I mentioned above, and who is an Australian, has written two great books relating to chatelaines:

  • Genevieve Cummins and Nerylla Taunton, Chatelaines – Utility to Glorious Extravagance, 1994, Antique Collector’s Club Ltd.
  • Genevieve Cummins, How the watch was worn, 2010, Antique Collector’s Club Ltd.