Though you probably don’t give ‘em much thought, one of the humblest parts of women’s clothing has a complicated history: pockets. These small nooks originally took the form of cloth satchels, which Western women wore under their dresses during the 18th century. Such pouches allowed ladies to stash items like needles and thread by day, or handkerchiefs and gloves by night. The pocket increased a woman’s mobility, and helped to slightly level the clothing-functionality playing field between women and men (the latter of whom had been rocking sewn-in “inset” pockets since around the 16th century).
In addition to usefulness, pockets afforded women privacy. According to Lauren Downing Peters, of Stockholm University’s Centre For Fashion Studies, most women in the 18th century weren’t property owners, and didn’t have the luxury of personal storage space. “Buried underneath layers of wire hooping, taffeta, and brocade,” says Peters, “nobody would ever know that the pockets were there—or what they held.” Inset pockets gained some popularity, but fell out of favor in the late 18th century, since they disrupted the lines of then-popular formfitting gowns. They were still a rarity in the late 19th century, a fact not lost on feminists like journalist Kate Field. “Don’t talk to me about the equality of the sexes when men have a dozen or more pockets and women have none,” she wrote in 1894.
By the 20th century, useful pockets were back for women, but they still caused a stir when they showed up in some high-profile designs—whether they were the untraditionally large, low-placed pockets in Coco Chanel’s jackets in the 1930s; the giant, useful external pockets in Claire McCardell’s ultrapopular “Popover” dresses in 1945; or the pocket-sporting trousers in Yves Saint Laurent’s le smoking women’s tuxedo in the 1960s. The commotion they caused in the fashion press indicated one thing clearly: functional clothing for women was the exception, not the rule.
It’s still tough to find pockets in most women’s dresses today, and we’re not counting the tiny novelty ones that can barely hold a tampon. Designers, if you’re listening: women don’t need more bows and ruffles. Just like men, we want deep pockets. –Christine Werthman
Illustration: Rebekka Dunlap
This story appears in the Dec/Jan issue of BUST Magazine with Hayley Williams.
The opinions expressed on the BUST blog are those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the position of BUST Magazine or its staff.