Myth Information – pockets

DANGEROUS COATS    by Sharon Owens
Someone clever once said
Women were not allowed pockets
In case they carried leaflets
To spread sedition
Which means unrest
To you & me
A grandiose word
For commonsense
Fairness
Kindness
Equality
So ladies, start sewing
Dangerous coats
Made of pockets & sedition

Pockets, like corsets, are getting mythical tales attached to them, but there was never a deliberate fashion plot to deny women of pockets, in fact they were invented for women’s fashion.

By the 17th century, women were wearing one or two pockets tied to a waistband and worn under the skirt (like the one Little Lucy lost) to hide money, handkerchiefs, jewellery, ribbons, pencils, sewing work, pins, love letters, pocket books, and even snacks, from highwaymen and pickpockets.

When clothes began to be cut closer to the body in the early 19th century (think Jane Austen’s heroines in little white dresses), drawstring bags called reticules began to displace the use of pockets. Both pockets and reticules held the same type of contents. Catherine Wilmot explained in a letter dated 13 December 1801 that “Reticules, are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-Bons, Visiting tickets.” Definitely not the sort of things that could be concealed under a narrow, thin skirt.

When fashions returned to fuller styles, many clients requested their dressmakers to include a pocket in a waist, side or back skirt seam. This practice continued well into the 20th century as the museum has several examples of skirts with varying sizes of pockets tucked away, almost hidden, in seams. There was also a fashion for visible patch pockets, sometimes decorative – sometimes useful, on jackets and skirts in the 1870s.

High fashion couture and even most dressy ready-made clothes in the 20th century often didn’t include pockets, especially not large ones, because the bulging contents would ruin the svelte silhouette. However, some tailored clothes and a lot of sportswear, offered an alternative for lovers of pockets. Even in the 1970s and 1980s when skin tight designer jeans had little or no pockets, most jackets and coats compensated with deep pockets — however, a bag slung from the shoulder took more than any pocket could ever handle, and it left the hands free.

In recent years, a lack of pockets is due mostly to off-shore fast fashion manufacturers trying to save money – because its another element to sew into garments. As luxury purse brands are currently status symbol accessory statements, there hasn’t been a big demand for pockets in daywear (although pockets are showing up more frequently in evening wear instead of little bags that have no room for cell phones and car keys.) The problem of buying ‘off the rack’ is that if there is no demand by consumers, then there is no change. Men have used pockets for centuries to jangle coinage and secretly adjust their scrotums. If a manufacturer removed pockets from men’s pants, they would go out of business!

The Victoria & Albert Museum has some great research on pocket contents and thefts in the 18th century.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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8 Responses to Myth Information – pockets

  1. Cass says:

    Thank you for your post. I think that’s an important clarification regarding women’s pockets. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the post does seems to suggest that women’s clothes don’t have pockets just becasue women don’t want pockets. You don’t say anything about the role the fashion industry plays in promoting an ideal female silhouette and how that relates to consumption of certain types of products. And if women had to ask their dressmakers to add pockets or if the pockets were purely ornamental, that does seem to suggest that women’s fashion post late 1700s was not meant to have functional pockets. I think it would be worth discussing how the the existence, size and functionality of pockets relates to whose clothes is considered to be purely ornamental and whose clothes is meant to be functional.

    • Jonathan says:

      Perhaps a topic more suited for a PHD thesis than a blog since it would require covering a huge number of varying influences over a large span of time.

      • Nancy L says:

        A great question Cass. I’m not sure it requires a Phd. to answer, but yes, the suggestion is that women, (because for a long period of time in history), were not legally allowed to have property, hence, no money, and were by and large considered property themselves, so indeed quite ornamental and as a consequence, had no need of pockets. Gloves covered their hands, so again no need of hand warmers and it would’ve been considered unseemly to have a women of note plunge her hands into side seam pockets.

        So yes, historically, there was a campaign that pushed forward the notion that women simply didn’t have a need for the utility of pockets and that has persisted even into the new millenia.

        Fast fashion manages to create pockets for mens clothing, but yes, the industry feels quite comfortable making those kinds of design and merchandise cuts when it comes to womenswear…so it’s a great question to ask, “who’s clothing is given utility and whose is not and why does ornamentation become so binary a choice when it comes to utility with women’s clothing?

        An interesting rabbit hole to venture down and an interesting question to ask because it has relevance as to why Ms. Owens may have been inspired to write “Dangerous Coats” in the first place. The poem speaks to a larger construct of why women’s clothing has not been given the same kinds of utility as even the most business of business suits for men? Even mens sleepwear often has more utility than the average day wear of the fairer sex.

        A small google search might help bring to light a larger sense of why a conspiratorial note is attached to the distinct lack of pockets in women wear… especially since this post suggests a lot about women’s clothing that pushes the idea that it simply happened via a system of passivity and cost cutting?

        • Jonathan says:

          Actually, it would be a great topic for a thesis. Contemporary feminist views are incorrectly surmising that there has been some sort of misogynistic campaign to keep women from having pockets throughout history. I invite anyone to study extant period dress for the existence of pockets, and studying how, in context, those pockets were used and for what in those garments for their intended purpose (ie: work dress, evening dress, travelling costume…) and in conjunction, what women carried with them for those occasions and how appropriate a pocket would have been… I am sure the answers will be, as I outlined in my blog, based on what women needed and wanted in the time and for the place those garments were worn. A better question to ask might be why did men not carry purses?

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  3. Catherine says:

    I so loved this. I’m one of those gals that when complimented on a garment I’m wearing I get to say, “Thank you. And it has POCKETS!!!!”
    Pockets are sublime!

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