Why Have Women's Pockets Been So Small Throughout History?

Why Have Women's Pockets Been So Small Throughout History?

Since the dawn of civilization, pockets have been a part of human clothing. While pockets may seem like a mundane and ubiquitous item of clothing, they actually have a complex and interesting political and social history that has been marked by sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice. In this article, we will explore the history of pockets, how they have been used to oppress certain demographics, and how pockets have been used as a symbol of power and privilege.

“I love your outfit!” “Look, it even has POCKETS!”

If that statement sounds familiar, you’re probably a woman and you’re definitely not alone.

Why are ample, useful pockets in women’s clothing so rare and exciting? Why are they such a rarity? Throughout history, pockets have meant freedom, privacy, and social status - by definition, that makes pockets political.

While today the pocket conversation may focus on which phones can fit where, the history of this fashionable convenience has everything to do with style, self-sufficiency, and gender politics. 

The Early Pocket

An image of an early, detachable unisex pocket

Source: Marketplace.org

In the western world, the last time we saw pocket equality between the genders was in the 15th and 16th centuries, when both men and women wore pouches for their money and possessions tied around their waist. However, this began to change - and by the 1700s, women’s pockets were detachable and typically worn beneath gowns and aprons and accessed through a slit in the dress, though their versatility allowed women to wear them on the outside if they chose.

Despite their ample size, these pockets were easily concealed within the layers of petticoats and panniers - hoops arranged on the hips to broaden the skirt. During this same time, men’s fashion also included pockets - but these pockets were sewn into their breeches.

Why were women’s pockets detachable, but men’s sewn into their clothing? Making the pockets a separate layer might have made removing them easier. Pockets were also given as gifts, so it’s likely that women considered their pockets keepsakes.

Pickpockets in this time not only pilfered the contents of men’s pockets, but stole women’s pockets entirely. Court records of reported pocket theft provide us with historical records of what sort of objects women carried.

While choosing a set of pockets for the day may sound glorious to us, let’s remember that men didn’t have to think about their pockets in the morning, didn’t have precious keepsakes tied around their waists, and didn’t have to consider whether someone might rip their clothing off in order to rob them.


The Pocket Makes a Move: Regency Period

Regency fashion had an absence of as modelled by Lily James in a flowing bronze gown

Source: IMDb

As fashion changed in the regency period, wealthy women’s dresses did away with heavy structuring and embraced a Grecian-inspired, flowing silhouette. Since it no longer fit under the skirt, the pocket moved outside the dress and onto the wrist, becoming the decorative reticule.

A predecessor to the modern handbag, reticules were highly visible and decorated. Sewing patterns of the era indicate that working class women and young girls might detachable pockets, and some even have instructions for sewing pockets into skirts. But for members of the upper classes, pockets were no longer a mark of prestige.

Carrying a reticule meant you still had your money and possessions at hand, but had to also have one hand partially occupied and your mind conscious of your valuables and possible theft at all times. Men's breeches, while making subtle changes, stayed largely the same when it came to pockets. Men’s money and possessions were kept out of sight, but always secure and close at hand.


The Pocket Gains Popularity with Men: Late 19th Century

A historical illustration of mens fashion in the 1800s including pockets, top hats and formal attire

Source: Historical Emporium

The precedent for built-in pockets in men’s fashion continued through the transition from breeches to trousers in the later 1800s. Not only did the newly-fashionable trousers possess ample pockets sewn inside, but the jackets and vests of men’s suits had even more pockets built subtly into the design.

Not so with the women’s wear!

In the later 1800s, the regency-period gown gave way to highly-structured Victorian silhouette. But for all their corseted, bustled fullness, these dresses didn't find room for pockets.


The Pocket Pitches in so 'We Can Do It!': 20th Century

Historical image of women working in the 1920s, with their hands in their pockets

Source: WikiMedia Commons

With the 1920s roaring in and gender norms in upheaval, women got their first taste of functional, built-in pockets by donning clothing designed for men. During the world wars that followed, women entered the workforce and needed practical work clothes that helped keep their hands (and minds) free to focus on work.

Women took to wearing trousers designed for men, and later men’s pants specifically altered for women’s bodies. The utility of the pockets in women's clothing dwindled as the wartime need for women in the workforce dissipated, and the pocket once again became more about fashion than function.


The Pocket Becomes an Illusion: Modern Fashion

Modern fashion neon vest made from multicolored mesh with imitation pockets

Source: Buzznet

While the pocket has been re-interpreted in many ways in the past 50 years, in the major trends women's pockets have remained primarily about lines and decoration, not about their ability to carry necessary objects.

All this brings us to the modern women’s pocket: the decorative seam, the inch-deep thumb-rest, the flap with no pocket beneath, and so forth.

The purse/handbag has skyrocketed in success as an elegant status symbol, and theft target, during that same time. Pockets have always meant freedom and independence - with the ability to carry your worldly possessions hands-free, not only did you have less to think about (not worrying where your things are), you were at less risk of theft (it’s harder to pick a pocket than it is to snatch a purse).

And to top it all off, you didn’t have to worry about extra accessories (extremely visible bags which have become expensive status symbols in their own right).


We Need to Talk About Pockets

A brnette model wears a long khaki overcoat with oversized pockets

Source: elle UK

So what can you do in this world where women’s pockets range from nonexistent to laughably small?

Talk about pockets, and make your praise of designers that provide them public. Wear clothing that has the pockets you love. Raise awareness around the problem - campaigns about sizing for girls and boys fashion in major chains have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, so take your pocket full of righteous rage and share it in a post of your own!

How do you feel about the lack of pockets in a lot of women's clothing? Let us know in the comments section!


Recommended Posts

Women's History Month: 10 Reasons We Salute Kathleen Hanna

The Stylish Evolution Of Corsets Throughout History


Title Image: Mode De Lis


About the Author

Margaret Dunham