Editor's Picks, Fashion

The size of women’s pockets have a strange, sexist, and oppressive history

That's right, pockets are a feminist issue.

Just last week at the airport, I was searching for my passport. It was far down my bag, hidden in my collection of lipsticks, nail files, and unexplainable candy wrappers. As I approached the front of the line, I started getting stressed, but I grabbed it just in time as the security guard laughed at me.

 As I was recovering from the stress-inducing moment that is my life, an old man next to me whipped out his strangely fancy passport cover from his suit jacket pocket and was in and out in about 30 seconds.

Have you ever wondered why that is? Why is it that I am carrying this huge bag containing everything under the sun, and this business bro just has his suit jacket?

Pockets have been anti-feminist from the beginning.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, women’s pockets began in the 17th century. They weren’t yet sewn into clothing and were a separate article of clothing tied around a woman’s waist. Because of the price, pockets were a sign of wealth. They were large, embroidered, and incredibly delicate. At this time, to avoid visibility, women wore pockets underneath their petticoat. So because the pockets were underneath all those all layers, they were accessible through a series of slits. This made them invisible, but accessible, and very inconvenient.

pockets
[image description: pockets sewn in the 19th century] Via Victoria and Albert Museum
Meanwhile, at the same time, pockets were sewn into the jackets, waistcoats, and breeches. For men, pockets have always been perfect. They have not changed the layout of pockets for men since the 17th century.

In the 1790s, pockets went out of style. A Greek-inspired high waist draping dress replaced the typical Victorian hoop skirt. If there were two huge fanny packs on your hips, it would ruin the shape of the dress. Enter: the handbag. At the time they were called reticules, and they were so small you could barely fit coins. Instead, women would wear them kind of like the pocket at the front of an apron, with a ribbon tying it in the back. That sounds less than convenient as well. But men still have pockets in their jackets and pants.

reticle
[image description: reticule, England, 1800-24. Victoria and Albert Museum] Via Victoria and Albert Museum
The 20th century is where things get interesting. In 1933, Women’s Wear Daily “boldly” asked the “controversial” question, “should women wear trousers?” Women were going to work now, and it was only practical to allow it. So Marlene Dietrich, a woman, French pilot, and professional badass, then enters the scene, wearing some trousers, doing her thing, and once again shows womankind the amazing benefits of pockets. Because of her, the style tended to be more utilitarian looking. And it was amazing.

marlene
[image description: Marlene Dietrich, pioneer of androgynous clothing, lounges by in a chair] Via Paul Cwojdzinski in Smithsonian Magazine
But, again, the popular silhouettes changed. Where in the 1930s it was desirable to look like a full-figured Marilyn Monroe, the latter 20th century decided women should be skinny. Having things in your pockets at your hips apparently ruins the facade that your hips are prepubescent looking. So, naturally, pockets leave us again.

Skinny women have been the main fashion narrative, really, since forever.  In 1954, Christian Dior famously said: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” And isn’t he right? Men have four functional pockets in each pair of pants. And women put their phones in their back pockets, because, well, it doesn’t fit in the front. When is the last time you put anything in your front pocket?

Now that gender fluid fashion is at the cusp of popularity, we are beginning to see a shift in what masculine/feminine is, the gaps between that dichotomy, and, an increase in pockets for women. This spring, a huge trend that is hitting stores are utilitarian styles, which means we can all embrace our inner Marlene Dietrich. At least I will be.

Not that you need to be reminded, but the patriarchy is still in full swing.

You’d think clothes are designed for women, that the fashion industry knows their market, and that the pieces designed would in some shape or form make comfort a priority- especially given the massive size of the female fashion industry. The reality is far from it.

Next time I am in the airport, I will definitely keep my passport in my pocket. Because you know what? I can and Marlene Dietrich would, too.