History 5th October, 2020

The Politics of Pockets: Yes, There’s Politics Here As Well.

All of you might have experienced this at least once where you complimented a girl’s dress and they jumped up in excitement to tell you that it has pockets. Why does something as small and seemingly insignificant as pockets (which is fundamental to men’s clothing), makes women jump up with glee and excitement as if they have chanced upon some treasure? Can pockets really be that important to someone?

History of pockets: When did they originate?

Historically both men and women used to carry their belongings in small pouches that were slung around the waist, hidden under the clothes and accessed through slits in the outfits. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the pockets started being sewn into clothing (only men’s mind you!). This enables the wearer to conceal the items they were carrying and hence the pocket was born. Women still continued to wear detachable pouch-pockets underneath their petticoats which were not easily accessible. Over time women’s pockets changed with ever-evolving fashion and underwent a dramatic change through the 1790s.

A woman with a reticule. Image source: Pinterest

With big hoops and large petticoats falling out of fashion and being replaced by body-hugging dresses with high waistlines, pockets started disappearing from women’s clothing because it was believed that pockets would ruin the line of the dress and look unflattering. Pockets were essentially replaced by very small and often decorative handbags called reticules which could barely fit a handkerchief and a coin at once. This was also a reflection of a social structure where women had little to no access to either money or property and hence didn’t need a functional pocket. There are also some accounts of pockets being banished from women’s clothing during the time of the French Revolution to prevent them from concealing arms.

So when did women finally get “blessed” with pockets sewn into their clothing?

Late 19th century and the turn of the 20th century saw a rise in rebellion among women and an organization called the Rational Dress Society was founded in London in 1881. They advocated for women’s rights to dress in clothes that were comfortable and allowed movement, unlike tight-fitting corsets which were often injurious to women’s health. Henceforth started the struggle to make functional clothing more accessible to women and in 1910, the ‘Suffragette suit’ became all the rage which featured as much as 6 pockets! During the world war, women started wearing trousers with big pockets for practicality as they were actively taking up roles in the workforce while the men were away at war.

Suffragette attire. Image source: History Today

However as the war ended and the men came back with the patriarchy, women were once again expected to wear ‘flattering’ and ‘feminine’ form-fitting clothing. Women’s outfits became slimmer and slimmer, making the pockets virtually shrink or disappear again. While men enjoyed pockets sewn into their trousers by tucking one hand inside as an expression of confidence and presence, pockets were no longer seen as a necessity for women with the rise of the handbag industry.

Are pockets political?

Charlotte P. Gilman who wrote for the New York Times said that “Women have from time to time carried bags, but a bag is not a pocket” and rightfully so. Pockets are political because they create a gender divide. On one hand, men’s clothing is designed for utility; on the other, women’s clothing is designed for physical aesthetics implying that men need greater mobility because they have to work. In contrast, women only need to be looked at.

Image source: CTV News

Historically, pockets provided women with a private space that could be carried into public spaces, providing them with more autonomy and freedom. As the pockets were banished and later on reduced in size, it meant women could carry fewer things, and the fewer women could carry, the less autonomy and freedom they had—this limited women’s ability to navigate public spaces or to travel unaccompanied. Not much has changed since. Think about how many times a woman has asked you to keep their phone in your pocket while outdoors or had a mini panic attack trying to figure out where they kept their bags.

But things have changed, and women have pockets now? Not really!

 One would think that women’s clothing has gotten better since, but sadly that is not the reality. A survey done by Pudding in 2018 showed that on an average, pockets in women’s jeans were 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than that of men’s. Only 40% of women’s front pockets could fit a smartphone while less than half could fit a wallet that was specifically designed to fit into the front pockets. Women’s clothing continues to be designed in a way that often renders the pockets useless. Sometimes even fake pockets or “fockets” are sewn into women’s clothing for visual appeal. This keeps pushing women towards the handbag industry (worth 8 billion USD) which is one of the reasons why women’s clothing still doesn’t have functional pockets.

Image source: Bored Panda

The fashion industry is dominated by men who don’t pay any heed to the utility and rather focus on the aesthetics of women’s clothing. Iconic designer Christian Dior allegedly said that “Men have pockets to keep things, women for decoration” and seems like his words have been set in stone since then in the fashion industry. This disturbing lack of functional pockets is not restricted to women’s clothing. It has expanded into children’s clothing as well where girl’s clothing is becoming more and more streamlined with non-functional pockets. This not only restricts a girl child’s ability to explore but also propagates a limited worldview of what they can and cannot do.

Hence pockets in women’s clothing are not just pockets. They are political because they have a socio-political historical background of sexism.

Also Read: Your Standards Of Beauty Are Implicitly Eurocentric: A History


Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: North Texas Daily

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