A Brief Look At The History Of Pockets In Women's Apparel
Pockets. How we love them. They’re one of the top requests we have for our designs (more! bigger! better!) - and rightfully so. As women with places to go, and things to do - we’ve got some stuff, and no time or tolerance for bags or bounce.
And while women have always lived bustling lives that require attention, accessories, and the use of our hands- our clothing hasn’t always been down for the cause. Women’s apparel arrived sans pockets until the 1930s. Oh yes. What follows is a weird, woke history of pockets. Who knew gender bias had its mitts on our hand holders.
Let’s go back. WAY back. You know how fanny packs are having a moment right now? Turns out a similar style was en-vogue during medieval times. And while feudalism was far from balanced in rights for each of the sexes, men and women both wore similar exterior pocket bags - suspended by belts - to carry their belongings. But as time passed and fashion (and theft) evolved - those bags became hidden under layers of clothing - accessible to men through openings in their jackets, and to women through slits in their petticoats.
However, in the 17th century, pockets made their way into men’s apparel - sewn into coats and trousers to replace the cumbersome bags. But women’s apparel never saw the same developments. The ornate and overflowing dresses of the Rococo conveniently hid away even the largest of pocket bags. But with the end of the French Revolution came an end to the conspicuous clothing of the previous period, and women’s apparel evolved to favor slimmer, more conservative silhouettes. Silhouettes that left no room for hidden pouches - and the reticule (perhaps the origin of the contemporary purse), was born.
Racked writer Chelsea G. Summers deconstructs the political significance of this well, in her piece The Politics of Pockets:
“One way to look at the transfiguration of women’s tied-on, capacious pockets of the mid-eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century’s tiny, hand-held reticule is to consider that this transformation occurred as the French Revolution, a time that violently challenged established notions of property, privacy, and propriety. Women’s pockets were private spaces they carried into the public with increasing freedom, and during a revolutionary time, this freedom was very, very frightening. The less women could carry, the less freedom they had. Take away pockets happily hidden under garments, and you limit women’s ability to navigate public spaces, to carry seditious (or merely amorous) writing, or to travel unaccompanied.”
Our pocket history grows even more complicated. Unlike the bag ladies celebrated in society present, oversized bags were a social stigma throughout the 1800s. Women were expected to have a man by their side - his pockets afforded to her to help with her portables. Widows, the unmarried, and working women in the cities often were forced to carry larger bags for their objects, and then shamed for it.
But women found their voice on the pockets issue. It quickly became a conversation in both fashion, and feminism, as we rounded the corner into the 20th century. In 1891, a new group calling themselves the Rational Dress Society called for women to dress for health (and purity), and ditch tighter styles like corsets for the trouser-based bicycle suit or bloomer suit. On the fashion front, women saw the incorporation of pockets into designs as an “arriving” of womenswear. Charlotte P. Gilman wrote for the New York Times in 1905, “One supremacy there is in men’s clothing… its adaptation to pockets. Women have from time to time carried bags, sometimes sewn in, sometimes tied on, sometimes brandished in the hand, but a bag is not a pocket.” The idea caught on, and with the arrival of World War II, pockets in women’s wear was unstoppable. When women are needed to help fight a war, turns out they get pockets in their pants.
But at the end of the war, fashion came for form, and women’s pockets got smaller (and less useful) as designers obsessed with slimming women’s silhouettes. Perhaps best stated by Christian Dior in 1954:
“Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”
A statement born from deep and dangerous ideological roots - that while men are dressed to do things, women are dressed to be seen. We beg to differ.
But opinions of women aside (a phrase I will never say again), pockets are not just a feminist addition to women’s apparel - they’re grounded in good design. And a good designer will see the choice of features as an integral act of form and function. In the Design Of Everyday Things, a design manifesto of cult-like status, Don Norman states it plainly: “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”
The women have spoken. We want pockets.
A Note: Many smart journalists have done excellent reporting on this subject matter before me, and I’d like to acknowledge them in both respect and as a resource for our readers. May your socially-aware editorials on apparel forever be supported by pockets deep and wide.
- The Politics of Pockets by Chelsea G. Summers via Racked
- The power of a pocket by Paul Johnson via The Spectator
- The Weird, Complicated, Sexist History of Pockets via Mic
- The Victoria & Albert Museum’s History of Pockets