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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5 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.

  2. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – October 21, 2018 | The Vintage Traveler

  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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