The Poignant Tale of Pockets

Author: Devika Verma, April 2021

My friend recently bought a new dress.  Very enthusiastically she asked me, “guess what’s the best thing about this dress?”, and instantaneously she yelled: POCKETS! Meanwhile, I was wearing a pair of jeans that could barely fit my tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, let alone a six-inch smartphone. We felt joyful as if we’d found a $20 bill in a long-forgotten jacket. At that moment, I realized how sad it is that two adult women are excited to have pockets—in 2021. 

Image by Unsplash

My friend recently bought a new dress.  Very enthusiastically she asked me, “guess what’s the best thing about this dress?”, and instantaneously she yelled: POCKETS! Meanwhile, I was wearing a pair of jeans that could barely fit my tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, let alone a six-inch smartphone. We felt joyful as if we’d found a $20 bill in a long-forgotten jacket. At that moment, I realized how sad it is that two adult women are excited to have pockets—in 2021. 

I sat down and did some research. According to the digital publication ‘The Pudding’, pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than those of men’s. Moreover, regarding utility, only 40% of women’s front pockets can fit one of the three leading brands of smartphones, and the majority of the pockets don’t even fit hands beyond the knuckles of the very people they are designed for.  The lack of functional pockets in women’s clothing is indeed a feminist issue.

The fashion industry has been sexist throughout history; from breath-sucking corsets to ankle-breaking heels, fashion for women has been more about beauty rather than functionality. In 1954, the famous French fashion designer Christian Dior stated—“men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration”—because women apparently don’t have things to hold, apart from their partner’s arms, right? 

The dismal state of pockets in women’s clothing was not always the case. During the late 15th century, things were quite gender equal—at least pockets-wise—where men and women both carried small pouches tied around their waist to keep essentials. Women used to keep sewing kits, food, combs, money, amongst several  other items. However, as criminals became sophisticated, people hid their external pockets under their clothing, and women started hiding their pouches under two layers of petticoats—accessible only through slits, by practically removing most of the clothing. This obviously hindered their presence in the public space. By the 18th century, women’s clothes became body-hugging, and skirts were worn higher to show the ‘natural waist’ and a perfect silhouette. Bulky pockets hanging around the waist would not have been a pretty thing to look at with that flawless figure—thus, gone were the pockets, and the independence that came with them.

Looking back at the timeline of the disappearance of women’s pockets, and juxtaposing 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 the notions of privacy and property were challenged. Women could carry seditious writings or weapons in their pockets hidden 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, except not much has changed in the world of pockets. Women are either deprived of pockets or graced with miniature pockets or worse – with fake pockets that are sewn shut. Women are now demanding functionality in their clothing. In 2018, a tweet by American author Heather Kaczynski went viral, starting a huge trend of hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, such as  #WomenNeedPocketsToo and #PocketDeprivedWomen. 

Now, one would think—what about handbags? People argue that women don’t need pockets, they have bags. Well, yes! Bags are lovely, but they have to be lugged around, changed for different occasions, and then there is the added risk of them getting snatched. Basically, it’s a pink tax that women pay for not having useful pockets; as if the world fears what a woman with free hands and the subsequent extra mental bandwidth can do. 

It’s only recently that fashion designers have recognized this long existing bias. In 2018, Karl Lagerfeld incorporated new pocket trends at Fendi’s runway show in Milan. Fanny packs came back in style, starting a new fashion trend in 2019. Furthermore, women are taking things into their own hands, and several fashion brands designed by women prioritize pockets in their collections. One such brand is Sali Christeson’s women’s workwear brand Argent. Startups like Pockets On My Dress and Poche Posh are also flourishing. There is in fact, neither an economic challenge nor a design challenge in creating functional pockets in women’s clothing—designers have simply been lazy. 

The high-end brands of the fashion world are the ones who set the trends. They design beautiful pieces of fashion, highly-priced, and rarely worn so functionality is not a primary concern. However, when these trends trickle down to the “bridge” brands, they forget that they cater to a vast working-class consumer base that favors utility and comfort along with beauty in their clothes. The burden to bridge this pocket gender divide is now on these mid-level brands.

I agree, in the fight to shatter the age-old patriarchal setup of society, much more important battles are to be fought, and discussing pockets and their sizes lies fairly low on the priority list. Nonetheless, this is the 21st century, the U.S. just got its first woman Vice President; we have bigger dreams and the size of our pockets must match them. 

Devika Verma is pursuing her Masters in Global Affairs at New York University, Centre of Global Affairs; concentrating in Global Gender Studies. She is a passionate feminist and believes that right data and effective storytelling has the power to transform the world.

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