Fashion

The Surprisingly
Sexist History of Pockets

We’ve all been bamboozled by fake pockets at one point or another. Oh, the pain, betrayal and deceit!

There’s a long and fascinating history behind this very familiar story that explains how and why pockets are such an insufferable topic. Hop into the time machine to uncover more.

Your Pocket Guide to Pockets

 

Pre-17th Century:

Throughout the Medieval era, both men and women donned waist bags – not too dissimilar to the fanny packs that have boomeranged back into fashion as of late.

1600s-1700s:

In the 17th century, men’s pockets evolved and had been widely sewn into their trousers, coats and waistcoats. On the other hand, women’s pockets went into hiding and were tied to their waists; they were made accessible through an invisible opening in the side seam of the petticoat.

Despite being out of sight, women’s pockets were often ornately embroidered. You can see what they might have looked like in this video that shows a run-of-the-mill, 17th century elite woman getting dressed in the morning.

1790s and The French Revolution

The French Revolution had people pinching their purse strings. Opulent, over the top skirts were a thing of the past, and slimmer silhouettes were “in”. This is when reticules, tiny purses that hung over women’s arms, made their debut. The problem lied in its size; it could hardly fit a few coins, let alone an entire bottle of gin!

By 1828, women accessorized with chatelaines – think: a Swiss Army knife-esque contraption that carried a woman’s most essential tools.

Though the trend of reticules and chatelaines were widespread, many women didn’t buy into it, and pockets were still pretty common. In fact, the Victoria and Albert Museum notes that the 1840s dress patterns contained instructions on how to sew pockets into the seams of skirts!

1900s:

The 1900s was a time in which the women’s suffrage movement was gaining traction. The press and public took to mocking suffragettes as “’mannish’ brow-beaters dressed in suits, cravats and pince-nez, hell bent on demasculinizing their husbands and abandoning their children. The postcard illustrated shows a suffragette wearing her “mannish” suit, with, you guessed it, pockets!

Singing a similar tune, this 1910 New York Times article, “Plenty of Pockets In Suffragette Suit” describes a fashion show in which the reviewer invokes a tone of shock at a “costume” that has “seven or eight pockets, all in sight and all easy to find, even by the wearer.”

Just 10 years later, though, Coco Chanel began sewing pockets into her now universally renowned jackets!

World War II:

As the war came around, women had to sustain the economy and take on more traditionally “masculine” jobs. Meaning: they needed more utilitarian, functional clothing – with pockets. Win!

Post-war era:

With men returning from the war, women retreated back into the domestic sphere and cultivated the nuclear family structure. This shift was prompted by propaganda dictating women’s roles as homemakers– in essence, they became baby making machines to compensate for the losses caused during the war.

This “re-feminization” of women and their respective place in society was reflected in fashion ideology; Christian Dior went as far as to say “[m]en have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”

The 60s, 70s and 80s:

The rebellion against the 50s “femme” fashions meant that pants took center stage. Multi pocketed, blue Levi’s, conventionally worn by the working class man, was popularized amongst women.

By the 80s, fashion gatekeepers were mostly men – men who had sexualized the iconic 70s pant.

Denim became tighter and the pockets became much smaller.

90s and 2000s:

They just got smaller over the next two decades, and waistlines dropped further and further –Paris Hilton was the queen of low waist-ed everything!

This era also held the rise of the designer handbag (and designer handbag knockoffs); purses became the staple item of this time – who needs pockets anyway?

 2019:

Even though we’ve come a long way from chatelaines, we still have a fairly large “pocket gender gap”. This study shows that, “on average, pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets”; just about big enough to fit an average woman’s hand… up to her knuckles (#blessed?).

Despite everything, I’m hopeful that, one day, we will reach pocket equality! In the meantime, and in the spirit of rebellion, I will (and I hope you will, too) embrace anything and everything that comes with pockets big enough to carry a bottle of gin.

 

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