A History of the Pocket - an essay

Give Me Pockets, Give Me Liberty!… a Brief History on the Quest for Pocket Independence.

by Cynthia Anderson

Every now and again one gets to witness a societal shift up close. As they say, “times they are a changing” or at least coming into clearer focus for all to see. As my GrandeMother would have said… the flap jack not only has been flipped, but has landed out of the pan with the revealing side up! The realization that things are not exactly as they may have been portrayed, is where we are at. The question is what do we do with this peeling back of the veneer? History has many sides and the truthful telling of the collective experience is the only thing that leads to a truly shared history. We at Folkwear have always felt the need and responsibility to educate ourselves and others about the historical and ethnic patterns we represent and promote. The unassuming pocket could seem like a less controversial place to start. Once again perceptions have been flipped. Knowing is understanding.

The pocket seems like such a simple and humble feature. A hidden, yet secure place within ones clothing to conveniently hold and keep items with you as you go about your daily life. Pockets have been around a long time and as it turns out they have a history more interesting and sordid than you might have imagined.  How is it, that something as practical and hidden as a pocket, could be subtly manipulated and denied to half the population through out history?

When you consider a pocket as a perfect metaphor for something that can be taken for granted, then you can begin to see the privilege it embodies.

This focus of this blog follows the lineage of the European pocket history tree.

Think about it . . . compare the closets of men and women. No matter how formal or casual the garments in each respective closet, there is a huge disparity. That disparity is the sexist and political divide of the obscure pocket. Simply put, pockets allow freedom and choice for one sex and deny the same for the opposite sex. 

To get the full pocket evolutionary picture lets start at the beginning. The pouch was the progenitor to the pocket.

The oldest proof (so far) of a human sporting a pocket-like feature was a mummified fellow found frozen in the alps in 1991. Otzi or “Iceman”, as he is now known, is thought to have lived around 3,300 BCE. At 5,300 years old Otzi’s was found to be a perfectly preserved and clothed specimen of the ancient world. Otzi had held his plethora of secrets well, as enthusiastic researchers were to discover. One of the most interesting items Otzi was wearing, was a pouch that was sewn to his belt. The contents of his pouch held a cache of useful items including; a scraper, drill, flint flake, bone awl, and a bit of dried fungus. This link to the ancient world just goes to show how the need to carry about useful things has always been relevant.

The medieval period was a time when at least pouches were equal among the sexes. Men and women in the 13th century carried items in small pouches made of leather or cloth that were tied to their waists by rope. These pouches hung innocently on their outer clothing for the world to see. As societies grew and became more urban-like, crime swiftly followed. Hence, the pouch and its contents were hidden from view. Men wore their pouches tied to the body under their jackets and tunics. Women wore their pouches tied at their waists under their skirts. Slits were cut in clothing to make for easy access to the pouch. This prevented having to disrobe, which in a sense made men and women equal pouch wise. This method of wearing pouches continued for several more centuries.

It was not until the 17th century that the pouch made a significant leap that would have a profound impact on fashion and culture, thus securing a strict unequal divide between the sexes. The modern pocket was born for men, but excluded women. The pocket experience was quite different for men than women. The jackets, waistcoats, and breeches of men had pockets sewn directly into the seams and fabric lining of their clothing much as they still are today. This compact world allowed men to conveniently carry the accouterments that their privilege and status assumed. In turn the freedom of movement in public was allotted to men as well. Men carried money, keys, weapons, tobacco, writing pencils and little note books.

In comparison women were relegated to relying on pockets with slits or top openings, that were tied around the waist sandwiched between layers of undergarments. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum the average woman in 17th century wore a single layer of petticoats and two layers of undergarments. The pocket was hidden, but could be accessed, though not as easily, through slits or openings in the clothing. So, even though a woman could carry personal items around with her in public, she often could not access her possessions in public.

Pinterest image-pocket Image credit: quinmbergess.wordpress.com

From this moment onward, the pocket became a direct correlation in the disparities, inequalities, and freedoms between men and women. Pocket inequality was born. In the 17th century women bore the brunt of insecurity and lack of status by having to secure their possession on their bodies. Women were not allowed freedom on any level. The need for women to have any sort of control over their lives is reflected in the use of their pockets. 

The Victoria & Albert Museum describes any number of indispensable items that were to be found in women’s pockets of the 17th thru 19th centuries. Because people often shared a bedroom and furniture, a pocket was the only private and safe place to store small personal possessions. These items might include but not limited to: money, jewelry, keys, glasses, gloves, watches in cases, snuff boxes, little note books, bibles, or diaries. Pockets were also a handy place to keep everyday implements like a pin cushion, thimble, pencil case, knife, scissors, and even a nutmeg grater! If that were not enough to stuff in ones pockets, there were the “Objects of Vanity” essential to personal grooming, like a mirror, comb, tooth comb, perfume or scent bottle. Because convince and privacy was often hard found, one would carry snacks and even bottles containing alcohol about in pockets, so when a moment presented itself one could take advantage of it. The Industrial Revolution would result in even larger pockets hanging about women’s waists because there were more goods to put in them. This in turn would inspire the need for the modern hand bag. Which of course was also the invention of a man. But that comes later.

The only leveling of the field was the threat of thieves. Even though the pocket was a handy feature for allowing men and women alike to carry items on their person, pockets also left both sexes vulnerable to theft. As a result of the “pocket thief” we get the term pickpocket. Men had their wallets lifted from their pockets or even more dastardly, the pocket was actually slashed and the contents fell out. Women being the "fairer sex" and practically loaded down with items, were particularly vulnerable to theft. The strings of women’s pockets were literally cut from their bodies and the dismantled pocket contents scattered to the ground, where thieving scavengers would scoop up the fallen wares. A person was lucky if they were not injured from the use of a swift sharp knife. Pickpockets often traveled in packs so victims would most likely have been accosted or restrained by more than one thief and rendered helpless.

Stolen items were expensive to replace and a collection of items took time to afford and obtain. It was a rare occasion that the police were not called. Pawn shops and other establishments would have been a places to launder stolen items, the burden of retrieval was on the victim. Damage to clothing was also a serious offense. All clothing, even women’s pockets were expensive and the average person did not have spare items to replace their stolen or damaged articles of clothing.

As the 1790s approached and the French Revolution began to stir, women’s fashion made an abrupt turn. Of course, this change in what was determined acceptable dress may have flown under the radar of women, but this change in fashion was very much calculated. As in all aspects of society, men were in charge and that also included the steering of fashion trends and dictating the motives behind them. Women’s clothes went from layers upon layers of respectable yardage which kept a woman’s nether region obscured from the gaze of men, all the while the bust portion of the body was revealed to the advantage of any and all male viewers.

The high fashion silhouette that women would adopt next was that of a Grecian Goddess. Think Jane Austin. The figure hugging dresses with high under the bust waistlines created a long straight column. This type dress obscures any sign of a natural waistline. These dresses were made of layers of sheer cotton and linen fabrics. Gone were the full skirts made of silk and heavy brocades that could conceal almost anything underneath (though the bust was still an exposed feature).

Meanwhile, back in England the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum in technological innovations in the textile industry. Which corresponded with the simultaneous destruction of the centuries old cotton industry of India. England would literally destroy India’s cotton industry, so it could take the industry for it’s own, in order to provided the much sought after and lucrative cotton fabric. If that were not bad enough, the British would then turn around and sell the cotton back to India at a highly tariffed rate. This is another history lesson of its own.

During the period of the French Revolution, internal and external pockets were banned from women’s clothing. Women now wearing the straight column silhouette, had to reveal their pockets to the world in the form of tiny highly decorated purses called reticules (and we have a pattern for one here). These minuscule purses were considered ridiculous, because they were barely large enough to carry a handkerchief or a coin. The idea was to prevent women from concealing any sort of revolutionary materials. The radical new silhouette was sold to women on the notion that no one would want to look like someone who had met their unfortunate fate at the guillotine.

Pintrest link  Reticule

If that were not enough, the reticule was so tiny for another reason. Women had no need to carry anything of consequence that allowed any form of independence. Women were sold on the idea that a dainty reticule was a status symbol indicating a leisurely life, with a husband taking care of the finances. From this point on, the purse was cemented and here to stay. The pocket and women drifted apart, while pockets became the monopoly of men.

As early as the 1840s and through the end of the century, dresses were once again gaining in fullness and a single pocket might be sewn into the front side seam. These pockets were demur in size, accommodating maybe a handkerchief. Dressmakers and home sewists were slipping pockets in their dress discreetly. For the next while one can assume that the pocket issue lumbered along for women and men continued with notions of pocket exclusivity.

The turn of the 20th century brought on protests by women for independence. A direct symbol of that long denied independence was the pocket. Instruction manuals on how to sew pockets into clothes gained popularity with women. In the 1800s, the Rational Dress Society launched campaigns fighting for more practicality and freedom of movement in women’s clothing and to abolish the corset. The Society had ideas of the perfect dress for women, and modern-thinking women were enthusiastic converts. A 1910 “Suffragette suit” became the rage, which sported six to eight pockets which were easily accessible and some were in plain sight!

With WWI gearing up, women clothes were becoming more practical and large pockets were becoming the norm. The pocket and women would finally unite and momentarily solidify. To say that the 1920s was a time of great change is an understatement… it was not called the “Roaring Twenties” for nothing. Fashion and life would change because women were taking the reins like never before. Women were fighting for the right to vote. Because of WWI women took the jobs held by men who went off to fight. The longer skirts of the Victorian and Edwardian era were being replaced with a slimmer and more practical silhouette. This new fashion was taking on the styles and details of men’s clothing and pockets were an essential element of this change. The pocket became a symbol of independence once only truly enjoyed by men. Women took on a rebellious attitude in nearly all aspects of life and ran with it. With the men away, women could have their day and their pockets.

During this time, Coco Chanel attempted to liberate women with her designs made of jersey and with her love of pockets. The Met Museum writes, "The fabric draped well and suited Chanel’s designs, which were simple, practical, and often inspired by menswear, especially the uniforms prevalent when World War I broke out in 1914." 

A very unexpected phenomenon appeared among women sporting pockets.  A new posture that Coco Chanel helped epitomized was described as a sort of slouch. This new posture became prevalent, because women finally had somewhere to put their hands! The slouch was a reflection of the relaxed attitude and confidence that only a pocket could provide. The proper way to stand and pose one’s hands had lost its power over women to the pocket. Of course, men were well versed in the slouch.

Coco Chanel wearing pants with pockets

Coco Chanel demonstrating the pocket slouch.

Pinterest image link 

The momentum made by women came to a halt due to a world wide depression and the men who returned from war felt entitled to the resume the jobs and status they had left behind. Women were forced to readjust to the reestablished order, but their spirits had been ignited and that was enough to change their views of themselves in ways that had never struck women before.

With the patriarchy back to intervene once again, restraining women through a conceived imaged of themselves, the ideal persona for women and pocket saga would continue. Men coming home from the war did not want to see women in clothes that liberated them (i.e. men's clothes). Women were expected to exude femininity, which meant an extremely slim silhouette that would not accommodate pockets. Pockets were once again a man’s monopoly. The “New Look” introduced by Christian Dior was the new fashion. It is an iconic look… think June Cleaver. JOFA.org puts it best…"Christian Dior bon mot: "Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration." Tease apart that quote and you get a fairly essentialist view of gender roles as they play out in clothing. Men’s dress is designed for utility; women’s dress is designed for beauty. It’s not a giant leap to see how pockets, or the lack thereof, reinforce sexist ideas of gender. Men are busy doing things; women are busy being looked at. Who needs pockets?"


 Dior 1947 SS Collection Silhouette; Pinterest image link: Chrisitan Dior

The fashion industry took things a step further and decided that pockets were no longer necessary for women. The handbag industry barged in and seduced women convincing them that the handbag was the answer to all their portable needs. The attitude was that as long as women are denied pockets they would be forced to rely on supporting the lucrative industry of handbags. Hence, an entire industry was sustained by excluding pockets from women’s clothing. To support this theory women were told that pockets ruined the female silhouette… pockets made the hips wide, the behind too big, too lumpy, or some such nonsense. Once again, a man's idea of what a woman should look like for the sake and lucrative benefit of guess who. The handbag was also elevated as a status symbol, which played upon women's desire to be fashionable, leaving women with an even more expensive insecurity.

Women still long for pockets for good reasons. Pockets allow people to easily walk through life comfortably and securely. Which in turn allows a certain level of confident preparedness in public. The pocket is internal and secret which makes it very different from a bag or handbag. A handbag is externally carried and leaves one vulnerable. If a handbag is lost or stolen then everything in it goes as well. No wonder most women have a love/hate relationship with their handbags. While pockets are not perfect, they do allow for a certain freedom in not having to think or worry about what you are carrying in them… you can forget about your keys, knowing they are secure in a territory all your own. There is freedom in not having to worry.

The ship is slowly turning course. Doors continue to open or in some cases are being kicked in by those who have previously been denied entry. Who participates in the once off-limits segments of society is shifting. The history of the pocket has not changed much since the end of WWII, with the same saga. Now, women contend with skinny jeans, shrinking pockets, fake pockets, and the ever growing size of cell phones. Things are changing once again. The underbelly of fast fashion has been flipped and the industry is grappling with what to do. The pandemic has forced a hand in so many aspects of life that were already shifting.

Fortunately, there is a huge uptick of women-owned indie companies supporting  the making of women's clothes and a lot are offering pockets! Women are taking a deciding role in all aspects of their lives and that includes the making and wearing of clothes. The sewing community is thriving and installing pockets as if in a mad dash to the finish-line!  The dream of pockets and independence for women is there for the taking. One gets the sense that a quiet but steady pocket revolution continues.

Choice is the greatest liberator of all. Sometimes all you have to do is choose to empower yourself. Everything that has steered the disparity in the history of the pocket and in fashion as a whole, has been a construct. It has all been made up and marketed for consumption. The story we are told or the one we tell ourselves can be rewritten to suit ourselves. Sewing is an act of liberation and freedom. Knowing how to simply sew a button on a shirt matters. Making your own clothes gives one agency. Those who sew would never dream of forfeiting the freedom to make what they want, how they want. My goal and hope is to inspire and encourage you to make something that will fold in on itself, many times over with pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

With that thought, I hope to leave you with a better understanding of the part the pocket has played in molding our ideas of each other and ourselves. 

Knowing how to add a pocket to an existing garment or sewing pattern is important. There are so many different design options when it comes to pockets, so be watching Folkwear's blog for lots of pocket inspiration (and a couple of free pocket patterns) and information in the weeks to come!

As always, the team at Folkwear relishes in seeing what you have been inspired to make. I hope you find freedom and joy in making your own pocket history!

Sew Well,

Cynthia