The Politics of Pockets (link)
The history of pockets isn't just sexist, it's political.
Hillary Clinton wore a deceptively simple suit when she took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to accept the party’s nomination for president. Its impeccable tailoring announced Clinton’s authority; its snowy whiteness connected her to the suffragette movement; and, with no designer claiming it, the suit seems to transcend fashion — unnamed, it belonged to every woman. All of these points make Hillary’s white suit a significant garment, but the suit did more than make Clinton look powerful. One omission in Clinton’s suit whispered a long, questionable history, and that is this: It has no pockets.
Much has been written about how sexism dictates whether a garment gets usable pockets. While class unquestionably plays a part, men’s clothing tends to have capacious, visible pockets; women’s clothing tends to have small pockets, if any at all. Content with their pockets, men have little to say about them, but women have been complaining about the inadequacy of their pockets for more than a century. "One supremacy there is in men’s clothing… its adaptation to pockets," Charlotte P. Gilman wrote for the New York Times in 1905. She continues, "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."
Truer words have rarely been written. A bag is not a pocket, and pockets — more than pants, more than ties, more than boxer-briefs, even more than suits — are the great clothing gender divide. Pockets are political, but probably not in the way you’d first expect.
Once upon a time, everyone carried bags. In the Medieval era, both men and women tied their bags to the waist or wore them suspended from belts; these bags looked very much like Renfaire fanny packs. As the rural world grew more urban and criminals more sophisticated, people cunningly hid their external pockets under layers of clothing to hinder cutpurses; men’s jackets and women’s petticoats were outfitted with little slits that allowed to you access your tied-on pockets through your clothing.
Only in the late seventeenth century did pockets make their move to
become part of men’s clothing, permanently sewn into coats, waistcoats,
and trousers; women’s pockets, however, failed to make the same
migration. Lacking built-in pockets, women continued to hide their
tied-on pockets, which were large, often pendulous bags. Secreted under
their petticoats, panniers, and bustles, these highly decorated pockets
swung heavy with their contents. You could fit a lot in those pockets —
sewing kits, food, keys, spectacles, watches, scent bottles, combs,
snuffboxes, writing materials, and money all found their place.
The French Revolution changed everything. While the mid-eighteenth century lavished in rococo, wide skirts that screamed decadence and wealth in their yards and yards of fabric, the end of the eighteenth century whispered restraint. Skirts pulled in close to the body, the natural waist crept ever upward, and the silhouette thinned to a slender column. This neoclassical look had no room for pouchy pockets, yet women still needed to carry their stuff. The reticule, a small, highly decorated purse, was born — and like a pernicious poltergeist, it has never really gone away. On the heels of the reticule, chatelaines — waist chains that resemble big, tinkling charm bracelets for the very busy — came into the consumer consciousness in 1828. Unlike purses, which hid everything away, these fashionable belts put women’s necessities on display.
Writing for The Spectator in 2011, Paul Johnson offers
a witty, thumbnail history of the sartorial convention of the pocket,
and he caps his piece with a 1954 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?