A brief history of pockets and why they're a feminist issue. We design pockets into dresses, skirts and trousers at Birdsong because we believe that clothes should be beautiful but still able to keep your hands warm, or carry your possessions.
Pockets, as we know them today, were first introduced in the 17th Century. Before that, in the Middle Ages, everyone wore pockets like a waist belt; they were just little pouches on a rope.
As cities grew bigger, people started hiding their external pockets under layers of clothing to hinder thieves. Men’s jackets and women’s petticoats were designed with little slits that allowed access to these tie-on pockets through clothing. Men’s pockets were quickly adapted to be more practical and sewn into garments like they are today. Women’s pockets weren’t. They continued to be worn between layers of petticoats, making them difficult to access and less popular. Women essentially had to get undressed to access the contents of their pockets. As female fashion became more figure hugging, pockets were just phased out altogether.
Gradually, women were encouraged to opt for bags. In the 18th Century, these were small decorative bags called ‘reticules’ that were truly very tiny. Post-war, handbags and purses were encouraged alongside more slim fitting styles. Pockets were often missed out of dresses and skirts altogether. Men, meanwhile, continued to have more and more pockets designed into their clothing. Among suit jackets, waistcoats and trousers, men in the 1940s had an average of two dozen pockets!
Pockets in women’s clothing (or the lack of them) has often been a point of rebellion.
‘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.’
Pockets are more commonly found in styles today, however there is still significant inequality between the design of men’s pockets and women’s pockets. Pockets in women’s clothing is seen as an added benefit and women often find that styles are designed without them at all.
A bride went viral in 2018 for having pockets designed into her wedding dress. A study, also in 2018, found that women’s jeans pockets are designed to be smaller than men’s. ‘On average, the pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets.’ if that sounds like an incomprehensible statistic: ‘Only 40 percent of women’s front pockets can completely fit one of the three leading smartphone brands. Less than half of women’s front pockets can fit a wallet specifically designed to fit in front pockets. And you can’t even cram an average woman’s hand beyond the knuckles into the majority of women’s front pockets.’
While this may seem like a relatively small issue in the grand scheme of things, that can be easily solved by carrying a bag, pockets are political and they are a feminist issue.
‘For women, it was (and still is) about equality. Pockets, unlike purses, are hidden, private spaces. By restricting the space in which women can keep things safe and retain mobility of both hands, we are also restricting their ability to 'navigate public spaces, to carry seditious (or merely amorous) writing, or to travel unaccompanied.’’
The lack of pockets, or the smaller size of pockets in women’s clothing is a design flaw built around sexism: ‘The London Spectator reported, that the common thought was that women “had four external bulges already — two breasts and two hips — and a money pocket inside their dress would make an ungainly fifth.”’
The current continued lack of pockets in women’s clothes is also a political problem that speaks to the wider structure of the fashion industry. Pockets have to be designed and factored into the shape and structure of the garment they’re sitting in. This extra time and attention isn’t something that fast fashion can’t really accommodate, due to its emphasis on how a garment looks, rather than how it fits, feels or functions. ‘Sara Kozlowski, a visiting critic with Parsons The New School of Design, squarely places the blame on fast fashion labels busily churning out copies of high-end designs that aren’t adapted to the lives of a normal person who isn’t strutting down a runway.’
From the 17th Century to 2021, women deserve practical pockets that meet the needs of modern living. Clothes can be beautiful, comfortable and practical. And that’s why we design pockets into our styles.