Women’s apparel doesn’t have enough pockets. This expert says that has to change

The Current22:37The patriarchy of pockets

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Women only want one thing: deep pockets, and lots of them. 

At least, that’s according to design expert Hannah Carlson, who says women have rallied for pocket equity for centuries. 

This notorious lack of pockets in women’s clothing prompted her to write Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close

Carlson, who also teaches dress history and material culture at the Rhode Island School of Design, digs deep into the history of the pocket, and the cultural significance it has in women’s lives. 

“They’ve agitated with much earnestness, you know — ‘give us pockets,'” she said. “And it’s just astonishing that it’s been this long. And I think that reveals quite a lot.”

In this book jacket image, a woman's upper body and chin is seen. She is wearing a blazer with a large red pocket, on which is printed the book's title Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close.
Carlson is the author of Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close. (Hachette Book Group)

Carlson points out that in menswear, pockets are expected, while in womenswear they’re not. 

Suits handily delivered on the expectation of pockets. The suit “evolved early as a uniform” for men, and its production — pockets and all — became industrialized sooner as fewer tailors began making them by hand. 

But women’s clothing continued to be handmade until around 1920, says Carlson. And eventually, women began carrying tie-on pockets underneath their skirts. 

“As women’s modern dress evolves, there’s this expectation that women will carry handbags,” she said. 

A pink handbag is seen hanging from a person's forearm.
Pocket inequity stems in part from an expectation that women will carry their belongings externally in handbags, says Carlson. (CBC)

Hayley Gibson, founder of clothing line Birds of North America in Toronto, says women are often burdened by that expectation of carrying their belongings externally. 

“It’s become such a tradition for women to carry an external bag of some sort,” she said. 

“I can’t help but think that it’s partly the predominance of males in fashion design — maybe just not thinking of these practical needs women have.”

That difference in the way we began making clothes is where pocket inequality stems from, according to Carlson. 

“From a very early age, I think we sort of agree as a culture that womenswear, girlswear is meant to be pretty,” she said. “And menswear, boyswear is meant to be utilitarian.” 

Woman wearing a green dress with her hands in her pocket.
Toronto designer Hayley Gibson, seen here in one of her own dresses, said the idea that women should accept carrying purses and bags instead of having proper pockets is just not practical. (Hayley Gibson)

An important part of apparel

Including pockets in her clothing designs was always an “essential part” of her brand, says Gibson. 

Clients of Birds of North America, a Canadian line which began in 2007, have revelled in that aspect of her designs, she said. 

“When I see someone trying on one of our dresses, they put it on, they zip it up and the first thing they do when they turn around to the mirror is slide both hands kind of over the waist — I think it’s unconscious most of the time, looking for the pockets,” she said. 

“If their hands pop into a pocket, their faces light up.” 

It’s something a lot of women are not accustomed to when trying on new clothes. 

But Gibson says her brand is rooted in comfort and offering wearable clothing that’s flattering and practical for every day.

You feel sort of helpless when you don’t have pockets.– Hannah Carlson

Pockets are an integral part of that. And as a designer — and a woman — she said she knows the feeling of not having them is unwelcome. 

“I find it really important to have pockets in clothes I wear for so many reasons. Even just for practicality’s sake,” she said. 

“Being able to have a nice, deep pocket in a dress or some other piece of clothing that I can put my phone in or a couple of credit cards or something … is really important to me,” she said. 

Gibson says cost-saving strategies, particularly in fast fashion, could also help to explain the absence of pockets in women’s wear  

“I’m not sure, but it just seems to be something that isn’t given the importance it should have in design,” she said. 

What pockets say about us 

Carlson said the way we interact with our pockets signifies a lot about ourselves. 

It can send messages depending on the social setting; hands in and out of pockets can mean different things, she said. 

“The question for me is, why is it that when you put your hands inside your clothing, it’s such a meaningful sort of expressive gesture?” she said. 

“From oratory and acting and public speaking, the hand removed into clothing, like a senator in Roman times who put the hand in the toga, was considered reserved. So this psychological gesture sort of suggests this kind of mystery.” 

Images of people with hands in pockets are splashed all over the covers of magazines and social media, says Carlson, suggesting a mysterious persona that otherwise wouldn’t be conveyed without pockets. 

“The sort of hands in pockets slouch suggests charisma and mystery,” she said. “And I think it’s because we really pay attention to, you know, what gesture means.”

Aside from expression, pockets were a large part of the suffragette movement’s agenda too. 

A store's window front
At her store, Birds of North American, Gibson said she’s often noticed that customer’s faces light up when they discover that the garment they’re trying on comes with pockets. (Hayley Gibson)

By the 1880s, women began to be vocal about pocket inequality, as the “demand for the vote and the demand for pockets were made together.”

“They call the lack of pockets their greatest lack,” said Carslon. “The New York Times gets in on the act — and in 1899, they’ve got this headline that says: Men’s clothes full of them, while women have but few. Civilization demands them. 

Perhaps Gibson sums it up best when she says that the pocket is a comfort that is, quite literally, always by our sides. 

“Socially, it’s so comforting to have pockets to pop your hands into,” she said. “You feel sort of helpless when you don’t have pockets.”

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