This column first appeared in The Western Mail in July 2022
My partner Alex says I never look more cheerful than when he compliments an outfit I’m wearing, and it elicits the magical four-word response:
“Thanks! It has POCKETS!”.
The first time this happened, it was as if his brain had short-circuited, and his face didn’t quite know what to do in response. Frankly, I’ve never seen him look so confused.
Then it dawned on me. The poor man has no idea of the joy an outfit with pockets brings me because they come as standard on men’s clothes. He barely notices his pockets because they’re always there.
On the other hand, my female friends all *know* why pockets matter. They share my unbridled excitement whenever I’m rocking a frock with pockets (a frocket?). They always, without fail, enquire where I purchased this holy grail of a garment.
Because, annoyingly, most women’s clothes don’t include pockets as standard. Consequently, finding an outfit I love that also has pockets (and not those tiny excuses for flaps! I mean proper deep pockets you can plunge your hands into on a cold day and hide your phone in) feels more of an achievement than it should. This situation has annoyed me for years.
I mean, women have possessions they need to carry around daily too! I don’t always want to use a bag (which is terrible for your posture, and carrying one means your hands aren’t free to do more fun things like eating lollipops and pointing at funny-shaped clouds).
I just want pockets in my frocks and jumpsuits, the same way men have pockets in their trousers. And while I’m at it, I’d also like them in my pyjamas, please. It’s madness that major high street retailers sell matching PJs for men and women – at the same price point – with pockets included for men and none for women. I can think of no logical reason why this is the case. So I’m repeating this for anyone at the back with the power to do something about it: WOMEN NEED TO CARRY STUFF TOO.
The great pocket gender divide is annoying because the message is clear; men’s clothes are designed for utility and women’s for beauty. It’s not a giant leap to see how a lack of pockets reinforces sexist ideas of gender roles. Men are busy doing stuff, while women are busy being admired. It’s an outdated idea that can get in the sea.
But it’s not a new problem. Pockets, it turns out, have been political for centuries.
Back in the mists of time, everyone wore bags to carry their stuff around. There was no gender difference. In medieval times bags were often tied to waists or suspended from belts. As pickpocketing became more widespread, people started hiding these bags under layers of clothes to become ‘hidden’ pockets, much like wearing a bum bag under layers of crinoline.
It was only in the late 17th Century that pockets became standard features in men’s clothing, permanently sewn into coats, waistcoats and trousers. But, for some reason, women’s pockets failed to make the same migration.
Without built-in pockets, women continued to hide their tie-on pockets, which were often ridiculously heavy. You could fit a lot in these tie-on pockets – food, keys, combs, snuff boxes (!) (the 18th century equivalent of 20 Marlboros?), money and other vital items often found their way into them.
And then the French Revolution changed everything. As fashion followed the political mood music – moving away from the rococo decadence of large bustling skirts and towards a more restrained, neoclassical silhouette – women had no room to carry overstuffed pouches. The reticule – a small, highly decorated purse – was born.
As fashion journalist Charlotte Summers explains:
“This transformation occurred during a time that violently challenged established notions of property, privacy, and propriety. Women’s pockets were private spaces they carried into the public with increasing freedom, and during a revolutionary time, this freedom was very, very frightening.
“The less women could carry, the less freedom they had. Take away pockets happily hidden under garments, and you limit women’s ability to navigate public spaces, to carry seditious (or merely amorous) writing, or to travel unaccompanied.”
It turns out my instinct over the great pocket divide was right. Pockets (or lack thereof) really were an instrument of patriarchal control. Imagine all those women going around OWNING AND HIDING STUFF. The patriarchy couldn’t have THAT. And that, friends, is why the handbag was born. So that women could carry their stuff on the outside, where men could see it. Safer that way.
(I hate to break it to you, but if you have ever brandished a designer handbag, you’ve basically paid through the nose to brandish a symbol of patriarchal micro aggression. Mazel tov, sista!).
Centuries after the French Revolution, Suffragettes adopted suits with pockets as an act of rebellion and were often photographed with their hands defiantly thrust into their pockets.
It’s a sense of rebellion I still feel strongly today whenever I plunge my hands into deep pockets. For some reason, it feels subversive. It shouldn’t.
Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez is currently leading a campaign demanding more ‘‘pocket transparency’ from retailers. In practice, this means retailers listing in product descriptions whether clothing contains pockets and whether they fit a standard smartphone. The campaign also asks retailers to include a simple “has pockets” filter on their websites to make finding pocketed clothes much more straightforward.
I contacted the fashion website ASOS to ask whether they will be making these changes and received the following response:
“Our teams are looking at this matter in detail and will consider enhancing product descriptors and the potential for a pocket filter. Such changes, however, take time to consider and implement; please bear with us as we look into this important matter.”
Oh, it’s only been centuries, fashion leaders. But sure, we’ll wait some more.
Women have had the vote for over a hundred years now.
Isn’t it time to let us have our pockets back too?