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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

Thanks, It Has Pockets!

The political roots behind pockets in women’s clothes.

Written by Olivia Schwab

"The history of pockets is a tug-of-war between utility and aesthetics."

The frustration of slipping your phone into the pocket of a new pair of pants only to find it’s sewn shut, or the struggle of a tote bag constantly falling off of your shoulder, is all too familiar for people who wear women’s clothing. The limited pocket space in women's clothing can be a constant annoyance. Even the most functional pants — those which advertise cargo pockets with zippered compartments on the thigh — do not compare to the pocket real estate that comes standard in men’s clothing.

For wearers of women’s clothes, this struggle is so real. You don’t have to look far to find Twitter rants, articles and videos in which people are either complaining about not having pockets or rejoicing over that rare gem that is the “dress with pockets.” And sure, we could all carry purses (which is likely what the $73 billion handbag industry hopes we’ll do), but not everyone wants to lug around a heavy bag. A survey conducted by The Pudding showed that, on average, women’s jean pockets are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s, and the majority of women’s pockets fail to hold a standard-size phone. While the sheer inconvenience of not being able to keep your belongings in your pocket may seem like a small issue, it is one that women have faced for centuries.

The history of pockets is a tug-of-war between utility and aesthetics. Women did have pockets before the 19th century, typically tied around their waists beneath voluminous skirts. However, toward the end of the 18th century, women’s fashion changed: silhouettes became tighter, waistlines crept up and pockets shrunk, sometimes being left out entirely. 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.” God forbid having an ungainly fifth! The fashion industry has been undeniably sexist throughout history; from organ-crushing corsets to ankle-breaking heels, fashion for women has always been more about aesthetics rather than functionality. Famous fashion designer Christian Dior put it perfectly: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” Because women apparently don’t have things to hold, apart from their partner’s arm, right? 

Looking back at the timeline of the disappearance of women’s pockets, and comparing that with the key historical event of that time — the French Revolution — we see that this big gender divide of pockets is not just sexist, but also political. Pockets symbolized liberty at a time when privacy and property were challenged. Women could hide weapons in their pockets under multiple layers of clothing, which was alarming during a revolution. Fast forward to the 21st century: women’s fashion has changed substantially in the last 230 years, and women are now demanding functionality in their clothing.

As women's roles in society evolved, so did their need for functional clothing. With more women entering the workforce and engaging in active lifestyles, the demand for practical clothing surged. Despite this, the fashion industry has been slow to adapt, perpetuating the myth that women's clothing must prioritize style over functionality. While advancements have been made in recent years, the persistent lack of pocket space in women's pants, jackets and shorts remains a glaring issue.

While looser jeans might seem to offer more pocket space, the reality is that they rarely accommodate items larger than a standard driver’s license. And slipping a phone into the back pocket? It's a risky proposition, with potential hazards like a plunge into the toilet or a heartbreaking shatter from an unexpected backflip. People who wear women’s clothing have been limited to lugging around hefty purses or uncomfortably juggling essentials like phones, keys, wallets, water bottles or lip gloss. Take a look at any woman at any given time: they are probably perfectly balancing a wide variety of things in their hands.

It’s only recently that fashion designers have recognized this long-existing problem. Several fashion brands designed by women prioritize pockets in their collections. In 2018, German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld incorporated new pocket trends at Fendi’s runway show in Milan. Fanny packs came back in style, and remain popular to this day. Women are taking things into their own hands, and there is in fact neither an economic nor a design challenge in creating functional pockets in women’s clothing — designers have simply been lazy. 

While the pocket predicament may seem trivial in the scope of feminist issues, it underscores broader issues of gender inequality within the fashion industry. By relegating women to limited pocket space, designers perpetuate outdated stereotypes and reinforce gender norms. The disparity in pocket size not only reflects unequal treatment, but also reinforces the notion that women's clothing is secondary to men's in terms of functionality and practicality.


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