You’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of men’s pants or jeans without pockets. The same goes for jackets, hoodies, and many other garments. But women still have to search high and low to find something with such a simple yet practical feature. So what’s the story behind the female pocket shortage?
The fashion industry suffers from many questionable trends, but the lack of pockets is perhaps the worst offender. In fact, the call for pocketed women’s clothing is so prevalent that it’s become a meme on social media. How can such a simple but practical thing be so completely overlooked?
To the extent of our knowledge, pockets didn’t exist in ancient times. There’s no evidence that cave people conceived of flaps in their furs to carry their flint shards and berries. They largely had to make do with other methods of carting their valuables around, such as baskets and pouches. The trend lasted quite some time.
The earliest use of anything resembling pockets roughly dates back to 13th century Europe and the invention of fitchets. People used to keep valuables attached to their girdles, which were traditionally covered by tunics. Fitchets were vertical openings cut into the outerwear so that wearers could reach their possessions more easily.
Historian Rebecca Unsworth reports that it took two centuries before pockets became a visible fashion statement. By the time the 16th century came round, they were a popular addition to garments, but downsides inevitably followed. To be more specific, they all but signposted the presence of valuables to thieves and pickpockets.
It appears that in the 17th century, pockets for men and women diverged down separate paths. Whereas female pockets continued as pouches separate from their outer garments, men had theirs stitched into the lining. However, women did adopt their own convenient ways to carry a plethora of useful knick-knacks.
The Victorian chatelaine was one such device, which was a series of chains attached to a fashionable clasp. The name is derived from a French term for a female house or castle owner. She bore the keys to her property, much as the fashion accessory held important things to its wearer.
Indeed, the chatelaine’s chains held whatever its owner was most likely to need in a pinch. These would be items such as coin purses or tools that the bearer would use in their vocation. For example, a writer might carry a pen or pencil on their chatelaine, while a nurse’s contraption likely held medical equipment.
In addition to their practicality, these accessories were also fashionable and expressive, as author and chatelaine collector Genevieve Cummins explained. In 2013, when Collectors Weekly asked Cummins who carried them, she said, “All members of society, from mistresses to maids.” She went on to describe the differences of chatelaine content between social classes.
“Royalty wore them,” Cummins continued. “Though these were more likely to be a watch, purse, or fan example. And nurses carried their necessary medical implements on their chatelaines.” And she added, “The quality of the items and its variety would carry status; each would have a variety appropriate for their needs.”
Cummins also described how chatelaine wearers expressed themselves by way of their accoutrements. “There was also a lot of symbolism used in these accessories, like pansies for thoughts, etc.,” she said. “I have one that’s got crosses, anchors, hearts, and stars on it, as a faith, hope, and charity symbol.”
Moreover, some shops stocked items specifically for use on a chatelaine, and for various different occasions. “The chatelaines to take to balls would often have a perfume bottle, a notebook, and a pencil,” Cummins explained. “And sometimes a little purse where you put a little sovereign, or a single coin, or a handkerchief.”
“I discovered quite a lot of articles about the plight of the pocketless woman in regards to where you put your handkerchief,” Cummins elaborated. So whereas males’ concealed pockets were designed for practicality, women’s accessories were considered more aesthetic. And it turns out that influential ladies of the time were also partially responsible for this outcome.
Indeed, Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, made slimmer waistlines fashionable, so bulky carry items became much smaller. By the arrival of the 19th century, small purses – or reticules – were all the rage. They were a lot less visible, and suddenly women’s carry-alls ironically couldn’t carry much at all. So what incited the change in popularity?
One theory is that political upheaval was responsible for the new design choice. As a result of the French Revolution, authorities tried to quash rebellion wherever they could. Limiting personal freedom was part of this, and restricting what women could carry was a consequence. Smaller bags equalled fewer taboo belongings.
The style of clothing also contributed towards privacy restrictions. Chelsea G. Summers, who writes for Racked on Vox, explained. She said, “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.”
Not everyone approved of the style, though, as the existence of the Rational Dress Society (RDS) proved. It was a predecessor of sorts to the Suffragette movement, since both worked towards women’s rights and equality. However, in the case of RDS, its work focused on the injustice of the fashion industry.
Feminists Eliza Mary King and Florence Pomeroy – Viscountess Harberton, inventor of the divided skirt – created RDS in 1881. Not only did powerful women form the RDS, but it also featured some influential females among its ranks. They included Constance Wilde (the wife of renowned poet Oscar Wilde) and author Mary Eliza Haweis.
The RDS objected to the extreme and often dangerous fashions of their time, requesting more comfortable attire instead. “The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health,” its mission statement described.
“It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible,” continued the group’s address. “And of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming.”
“[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully,” RDS concluded. “To seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.” The group got a lot of support from female cyclists, who stood to benefit greatly from freedom of movement.
In a time when women were fighting for their own individuality in society, cycling was an important activity. It’s no surprise, then, that the Lady Cyclists’ Association supported the RDS’ new idea for practical garments. In 1895 an anonymous tailor also told The New York Times that bicycle clothing provided women with an optional method of self defense.
He described how some of his female clients wanted gun holsters concealed in their apparel. “Not all of them want to carry a revolver,” the unidentified person said, “but a large percentage do and make no ‘bones’ about saying so. Even when they do not tell me why they want the pocket, they often betray their purpose by asking to have it lined with duck or leather.”
It appeared that women were finally getting a voice, especially when campaigner Charlotte Carmichael Stopes spoke on RDS’ behalf. During a meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Stopes made an additional RDS speech. It was a huge deal at the time. Indeed, the press seemed more enthusiastic about Stopes’ address than the gathering’s original purpose.
The Suffragette feminist movement that followed RDS truly remade society. Thanks to the efforts (and the sacrifices) of many strong-willed women, feminism started to change the world. After the pursuit of their cause had led to them enduring prison sentences, hunger strikes and forced feeding, the Suffragettes finally won females the right to vote.
With their newfound rights, women found a greater freedom of clothing designed for both style and substance. In turn, designers turned their attention to something sorely missing in female apparel: pockets. The New York Times writer Charlotte P. Gilman addressed the issue in 1905, pointing out the inequality in male-female clothing.
“One supremacy there is in men’s clothing… its adaptation to pockets,” Gilman expressed. “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.” In the wake of the Suffragettes’ victory, the New Woman emerged, fully pocketed.
The New Woman was what people called females who wanted to stand equal with men, politically and socially. They had lots of pockets in their clothes, which some males objected to or even found threatening. One particular man writing for a magazine called The Graphic in 1894 found the idea horrifying.
“The pockets of the ‘New Woman,’” the writer said, “admirably useful as they are, seem likely to prove her new fetish, to stand her instead of blushes and shyness and embarrassment, for who can be any of these things while she stands with her hands in her pockets?”
If that thought scared him, the clothes of the Suffragettes must have chilled him to the core. The designs of their outfits seemed to be an effort to make up for the years of suffering from pocket deprivation. These suits, which had numerous pockets, made The New York Times headlines in 1910.
The newspaper title was “Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit.” It went on to describe the seven-plus pockets as being, “All in sight and all easy to find, even for the wearer.” Yet even though it looked like the woman’s pocket was here to stay, they vanished from fashion again.
Take the suit renowned Democrat Hillary Clinton showcased for her presidential nomination in 2016, for example. The outfit she wore attracted a lot of media attention from journalists for its resemblance to the Suffragette suits. She dazzled potential voters with a smart white pantsuit. It was a visual nod towards the feminist movement.
In addition to the outfit’s style, white was also a signature color of the Suffragettes. Something differentiated Clinton’s suit from theirs, however: it seemed completely bereft of pockets. It looks like fashion designers are reluctant to give women what they clearly want, at least consistently. But sometimes they dabble with the idea.
That’s exactly what happened in 2014, when designer Marc Jacobs displayed several pocketed dresses on the catwalk. The trend resurfaced more recently in 2018 at Fendi, which featured models showcasing leather coats with large pockets. In addition, Alberta Feretti showcased a number of skirts and jackets with oversized cargo pockets.
So how is it that more than a hundred years later, women are still in dire need of pockets? There’s obviously a desire for them, as modern memes and the comments on social media prove. Take the public’s response to writer Maura Quint’s tweet on her joy of finding a pocketed dress, for example.
“Seriously, that is a really important point,” one social media user replied. “Why don’t women’s clothes have pockets?! (And why can’t we walk in so many ‘sexy’ shoes?!)” Another wrote, “Pockets have become the main deciding factor in buying a dress or not.” One poster also brings up another valid point: fake pockets.
“I scream every time I go looking for work pants and find them with fake pockets,” someone tweeted. “What is the point of fake pockets?” Moreover, even when clothes include functional pockets as standard, women tend to get the short straw. At least, that’s the verdict according to modern culture site The Pudding.
In a study of 80 pairs of popular men’s and women’s branded jeans, The Pudding’s researchers noticed a pattern. “On average,” it reported, “the pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets.” In terms of functionality and storage space, that’s quite a significant difference.
“Only 40 percent of women’s front pockets can completely fit one of the three leading smartphone brands,” The Pudding revealed. “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.”
One theory is that the purse and handbag fashion industry is to blame. They can sell more merchandise if clothes have fewer pockets. But at least in 2019, companies are making more clothes with pockets, even if they are smaller. Let’s hope the trend continues to grow, until designers realize that pockets are equally beneficial to both men and women.