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.

Handbags, purses, pocketbooks… all the same thing?

Brown textile handbag, or is it a clutch? with glass fox handle, from the Fashion History Museum collection, c. late 1930s

In a recent web search I came across a museum for handbags in the Netherlands that I never knew existed. This reminded me of a discussion on the Vintage Fashion Guild a few months back about the definitions of the words ‘purse’ and ‘bag’. The responses revealed a surprising list of various regional definitions.

For the English (and Australians), a purse is what North Americans call a ladie’s change or coin purse while most North Americans think of ‘purse’ as a generic term. The term handbag is used in England to mean specifically the accessory carried by ladies, while in North America, the term is specific to a small bag with one or two handles to hold onto or loop over your wrist. In the U.S. handbags are generally considered to be a more formal version of a ‘bag’ which covers all forms of everyday hand and shoulder bags of various sizes (but for totes or backpacks.)

Alligator handbag, or is it a purse? From the Fashion History Museum collection, c. 1900

The largest difference between Canadians and Americans was the American use of the old English term ‘pocketbook’ which originated from a type of wallet that fit into the pocket in the 18th century. The term was first used to describe a woman’s hard sided handbag in 1816, as opposed to a drawstring closed soft-sided reticule (aka dorothy bag). Pocketbook is now an archaic word in England and Canada and becoming increasingly scarce in the U.S. but is still used by some to describe the difference between a soft and hard sided handbag. 

For the English, a wallet is a masculine style of purse, whereas in North America there are men’s and ladie’s wallets, with men’s wallets (aka billfolds) being smaller to fit into back pockets of trousers (or as Americans would say – pants).

While all of this can be confusing, just remember one important thing, if you travel to England just call your ‘fannypack’ a money belt…