The Bewildering and Sexist History of Women’s Pockets

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It’s an age-old struggle. You find the ideal pair of jeans, trousers, dress or jacket. It’s the perfect cut, the colour is dreamy and your face brightens up as you notice the detail of all details: it has pockets! Not only that, but the pockets seem to be ginormous, like you’ll actually be able to fit more than just your pinkie finger inside.

But this sensation of elation doesn’t last. You get closer, you inspect the garment in detail and voilà, the pockets are fake. They’re just part of the design, a small detail for aesthetic beauty but zero practical use. You curse the world for the minute quantity of women’s clothes that have fully-functioning, normal sized pockets. And from this disappointment comes the question, why is it that women’s clothing almost never has practical pockets?

Well, you wouldn’t have guessed it, but the history of the woman’s pocket is surprisingly political and has come to signify the freedom and independence that women throughout history have fought to gain.

Let’s go down a bit of feminist history about pockets…

A Glimpse of Gender Equality… Through Pockets

Throwback to the middle ages. Both men and women lugged around little pouches that were slung from a rope, allowing them to carry any essentials around with them. Clothes had little slits which meant you could easily access your pouch without having to throw off yards of material. In a sense, during this period men and women were equal – in terms of their rights to pockets!

Then came along the grand 17th century idea of sewing these pouches right into your clothes, enabling the wearer to conceal the items they were carrying and keep them close to their bodies. The pocket was born. However, unlike men’s pockets which were easily accessible and sewn right into the linings of their coats, waistcoats and breeches, women still had to rely on having separate pockets that sat underneath their petticoats. For a bit of context – according to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the average 17th century woman wore a petticoat and two layers of undergarments. Her pocket would be tied around her waist, in between her under-petticoat and petticoat. Women essentially had to get undressed to access the contents of their pockets. So even if they could carry their personal items around with them, they couldn’t’ get them out in public. And thus, the inequality of men and women’s pockets was born.

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As women’s fashion evolved in the 1790s, the pocket slowly began to disappear as more figure hugging dresses came in fashion. Women had to revert to having their ‘pockets’ on show to the world, opting for small decorative bags, called reticules, that could scarcely fit a hankie and a coin. This was essentially an embodiment of the fact that women had next to no access to money or property, therefore wouldn’t need a functional pocket. There are even rumours that during the French Revolution, both the external and internal pocket was banished from women’s clothing to prevent them from concealing revolutionary material. Women’s pockets essentially disappeared because their husbands would carry all their money and necessities. After all, women were meant to just sit at home, drinking tea, preparing meals for their husbands and knitting little jumpers for their hordes of children.

The 20th Century Pocket Revolution

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The turn of the 20th century, however, brought on women’s rebellions. Instruction manuals on how to sew pockets into your skirts became more and more popular as women increasingly sought after independence. In the 1800s, there were campaigns led by the Rational Dress Society, fighting for women’s clothing to be more functional. A 1910 ‘Suffragette suit’ with no less than six pockets became all the rage. As the World Wars were sparked, women turned to more practical clothing, with trousers and large pockets becoming the norm. Women were finally blessed with the pockets they had been campaigning for years before.

The Patriarchy Strikes Again

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You would think that this was the end of the pocket saga. However, the patriarchy struck again, and voilà post-war women were expected to exude femininity and get rid of the clumpy man-styles they had been wearing while the men were away. Women’s clothing became slimmer and slimmer, relegating the pocket to yet-again become a man’s object. As the handbag industry began to grow, pockets were no longer seen as a necessity for women. From the age of skinny jeans, to the evolution of slim-fit jackets, pockets continue to be a contentious object for women. Not to mention the fact that mobile phones appear to be getting bigger and bigger, while pockets continue to shrink. All we’re asking for is equality. Why do men get to shove their phones, wallets, entire pizza boxes, elephants and houses down their pockets while we continue to struggle to fit even one thin debit card in there?

While pockets may seem like a trivial matter, they are an object that embody our patriarchal systems and sexist histories. Is pocket equality really too much for us to ask for?

 

Article by Chanju Mwanza