What You Didn’t Know About Pockets in Women’s Fashion

Featured Image: Kit Cronk

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The first thing I do when I try on a pair of pants in the dressing room of a clothing store is reaching down in the pockets and seeing if it can fit my phone and wallet. Having pockets that can hold these two things make me feel comfortable. It means I do not have to carry a bag with me. I won’t have something that would unnecessarily weigh me down when I go out. The thing is, I was not aware of the complex history of pockets until I read about it last week. What I found out blew my mind and I think yours is about to get blown away too. 

Long before the uncomfortable rectangles in the back of our jeans lent a very small space to squeeze our phones in, people used to carry around small pouches attached to their clothing with a string, or suspend them from their belts. Men and women alike stored their necessities in these small bags. In the 13th century, slits were cut in men’s jackets and women’s petticoats to conceal these pouches in an effort to hide their possessions from thieves. People would discreetly reach through their garments to access the pouches for money, keys, and food. 

The 17th century introduced a large change to the fashion industry — well, for men at least. The idea of sewing the small pouch directly onto garments began to emerge. Pockets were sewn and fitted on jackets, coats, and trousers. However, women still had to lug around these pouches underneath their gowns. They were quite heavy at the time. You might wonder what these women had to carry around during a time when iPhones and credit cards didn’t exist. Well, a common woman during the 17th century carried a variety of items in her pouch that included food, a mirror, a comb, handkerchiefs, and a sewing kit consisting of things like thimbles, scissors, a pincushion, and a pencil. 

The 18th century ushered in a period where gowns started to become more figure-hugging. There was no space for the heavy pouches that were fitted underneath the gowns. The wide skirts that were once a sign of wealth quickly turned into that of restraint. The pouches that had once stored everything began to disappear and in came small decorative bags that were displayed on top of these gowns. These bags are called “reticules”. They were very small and could not fit more than a handkerchief and a coin. Just like the modern handbag, reticules were worn over the arm and on display. Reticules were also a sign of class and wealth. A wealthy woman would carry around a small reticule. This meant that she would let the men in her house handle the finance, and thus did not carry around money. A large reticule symbolized a woman who worked and did not have the time or luxury to sit at home and well, do nothing. Now, you might be thinking, what about the men? Did they have a reticule of their own? The answer is no. Men had their pockets sewn into their clothing and were thriving.

Women’s lack of freedom and control over their finance was reflected in the way their pockets were structured. 

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, sewing manuals included instructions and illustrations of pockets in the 19th century. These pockets were either fastened onto the skirt or tied around the waist. In contrast to the ones in the 18th century, these new pockets were large, plain, and more useful. The early 20th century ushered in the world wars, and thus, the demand for utilitarian clothing for women increased as more women started working. Women were finally starting to wear trousers, and those finally had sturdy pockets!

This small victory didn’t last for long. After the war ended, women were made to leave their jobs and return to being housewives. The fashion industry started to produce clothing that was fitted to their silhouettes. This meant that pockets were becoming slimmer, and then completely cut out from women’s pants. You’d be lucky to find a pair of pants that have a working back pocket. With the disappearance of pockets came the booming industry of handbags. Pants lacked pockets and handbags made up for that. 

While men’s fashion has been designed for utility since the 17th century, the same cannot be said for women’s fashion. In 1954 designer Christian Dior reportedly said, “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” Dior’s words echo the sentiment in the fashion industry and society alike that men have certain things for utility while women have the same things for decor. Much like women themselves, their pockets have become a sign of decor. However, with the struggle for pockets to become normalized in women’s clothing, they have transformed into a symbol of equality and autonomy. Jeans, trousers, dresses, skirts, and coats all seem to have a pocket or two. They might not be the most comfortable or practical, but they are definitely a sign of progress. The road to equality in fashion is long, and the topic of pockets is just a stop along the way.

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Resources:

A History of Pockets: Victoria and Albert Museum