The Dumb, Sexist, and Oppressive History of Women’s Pockets

My phone is the embarrassing kind of iPhone with cracks which annoyingly embroider the whole screen and tiny missing chips of glass on the edges. But I am not a reckless 13-year-old who treats their phone like a piece of brick, nor am I the careless free-spirit who goes through life raw and devoid of a phone case: I am a girl in lack of adequate pockets, or sometimes any pockets at all. The day I cracked my phone was like any other day in which I had to carry my phone in my hand because my pockets weren’t big enough to hold it. It has been passively accepted that women have smaller pockets than men, a neglection that women just deal with when they willingly buy a pair of pants that nonsensically pretends to have pockets through its fake-out seams. While I do not (solely) blame the patriarchy for my cracked phone screen, it is important to acknowledge the oppressive nature of the difference in pocket size and access to pocket-included clothing between men and women. 

The origin of pockets is believed to be in the 17th century, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Since the beginning, the design of women’s pockets has always been confining, especially in comparison to men’s. Women’s pockets were a separate piece of fabric that was tied around the waist and worn underneath their petticoats. As a result, the pockets were not visible nor convenient, as the only way to access them was through multiple slits of clothing. In addition, these expensive pockets were a sign of wealth, further indicating an extended disparity in the access to carry one’s personal belongings. In comparison, men’s pockets were sewn into jackets, waistcoasts, and breeches, and have essentially been unchanged in concept ever since. 

By the 1790s, pockets fell out of trend, and the handbag was introduced. The classic Victorian hoop skirt was replaced with a high-waisted draping dress that was greek-inspired, and trying to add pockets on the outside of the dress would ruin the shape of the hips and overall silhouette. Therefore, pockets were swapped for the handbag-like “reticule,” a tiny pouch that could barely hold money or jewelry. 

Beginning in the 19th century, a sense of rebellion and revolution was in the air. Women took matters into their own hands as instruction manuals on how to sew pockets into their own skirts grew increasingly popular. In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller became the first woman to wear trousers. The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 that campaigned for more practical and functional clothes while protesting unreasonable dress structures which hindered free movement or deformed women’s figures. 

In the 20th century, the World Wars launched women into the workforce, and utilitarian clothing became in vogue. With the “We Can Do It!” attitude, reform for functional clothing and pockets were put in place, finally giving women a taste of a man’s mobility. Eventually, fashion hit a point of confusion: how do women exhibit their supposed-to-be slim figures if they wear boxy clothes that were originally made for men? The 70s and the early 90s were brief periods when the practice of women wearing men’s clothing or men-inspired pieces was in style. However, with the introduction of the luxury handbag as well as Paris Hilton’s low-rise tight pants, fashion regressed in the area of functionality.

With the 21st century, and modern fashion, comes the joke of pockets that are only for show but not for any practical use. Although women have called attention to the absurdity behind women’s pockets, our pockets remain small. Even with increasing progressive acceptance of gender fluidity and androgynous fashion, pockets continue to be a decoration rather than a functional component. Additionally, purses and handbags, signs of sophistication and class, are more in style than ever. These women’s-pocket-counterparts, which sometimes can’t even be carried on one’s shoulders, don’t do much for women in terms of practicality either. 

Pockets are important because they characterize an individual’s mobility and lifestyle. If women have smaller pockets, they cannot carry as many things as a man: they carry less necessities, less money, less opportunities to live freely. But the problem extends far beyond this. Footbinding is similar to pockets in terms of confinement but also as another example of how society prioritizes the image of a woman over the ability of a woman. A preference for small feet hindered mobility, while a preference for women to be thin and feminine takes precedence over convenience and freedom. It doesn’t matter if the pockets aren’t really there if they look like pockets; it doesn’t matter if a purse is too small if it’s a cute accessory. Women have to choose between appearance and practicality when men aren’t subjected to think twice about either. It’s time for women to be able to choose both. 

I propose a world where a woman can be slim, can be curvy, can be bold, can be weird, can be trendy, all while being a working woman who carries her keys, her wallet, and her phone in one pocket: a world of unrelated-to-pockets phone screen cracks and comfort.

-Van To