Why women’s pockets are useless: A history

Ariana Tobin Sep 18, 2014

Why women’s pockets are useless: A history

Ariana Tobin Sep 18, 2014

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus descend upon us today, and tech reviewers are throwing it a pretty elaborate welcome party. Amid the loving descriptions of its crisp camera, the odes to its intuitive operating system and the near-reverence for its sleek lines and its mystical Apple-ness, one question (quite literally) looms large: Is the bigger iPhone 6 Plus a “pocketable” size?

Case in point:

The Verge’s Nilay Patel started his video review like this

…and ended it like this:

The Verge pocket video end


Lance Ulanoff at Mashable wasn’t sold on the 5.5-inch “phablet” (OK, maybe there is more than one controversy over this phone):

 Yahoo’s David Pogue agrees:

“The small of hand won’t be thrilled about the added width. The iPhone 6 Plus, in particular, is a pocket-filler.” 

The list goes onThe conversation hinges on the company’s decision to release a gigantic phone. However  and we’re not the first to point out  the “pocket problem” would be more accurately described as a “men’s pocket problem.”

Most “pockets” in women’s clothing, are, pretty much without question, useless. Some won’t open at all. A demonstration:

The great gendered pocket divide is real, and it did not happen by accident. As Christian Dior is reported to have said in 1954: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” 

This is how it happened:


Pockets used to do a lot more than decorate, writes fashion historian Barbara Burman in of “Pockets of History: The Secret Life of an Everyday Object.” Most 17th and 18th century women tied separate pocket bags underneath their dresses, which they would access through a slit in their skirts and petticoats. 

Owners thought of them as meaningful pieces of clothing in their own right. They would often spend years embroidering and embellishing them – after all, for many people who shared close quarters, a pocket was one of few truly private places to keep personal possessions.  

Early 1800s

As the 18th century turned into the 19th, however, women’s pockets shrunk and sometimes disappeared  especially for those with means.

“The design of the times was ‘Greek Goddesses,'” says fashion historian Elizabeth Morano, a professor at Parsons School of Design. “Women…would study the ancient texts and couldn’t find pockets, so they didn’t use them in the dress. Some of those stories are just stories, but the line was a lot more sleek. Think of the neoclassical dress. It’s straight up and down. The line of the clothing changes completely.” 

Take, for instance, this portrait of Empress Josephine, hanging out in a forest circa 1805:


She wasn’t wearing a pocket under her empire gown, and neither were her wealthy contemporaries. Inner-clothing storage space gave way to the external “reticule,” considered a precursor to the modern handbag. They were carried on arms or in hands, and they held just about nothing. Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum say reticules had “barely enough room for a hankie and a coin, never mind the mirror, watch, keys, needlecase and oranges that a pocket usually contained.”

In terms of functionality, it was a major downgrade. 

“If I were to interpret [the change],” says Morano, “it comes down to ‘you don’t want this functional item. It’s not traditionally feminine, it’s not fashionable.'”

Well-to-do women weren’t supposed to need their hands for labor, and carrying money just wasn’t supposed to be a wife’s concern. In Burman’s words, “the frustrations and limitations of women’s access to money and ownership of property were neatly mirrored in the restricted scope of their pockets.” 

Not everyone would let go of pockets or “dimity bags” without a fight — especially older women, young children, and working-class servants. As the granddaughter of President John Adams and the first lady Abigail Adams wrote“All old ladies wore these pockets and carried their keys in them.” 

Even when smaller, sewn in pockets came back into vogue in the later nineteenth century, there was still a distinction between lower-class women’s ample pocket bags and the “bag like slip of silk” satirized in a popular story from the time called “Grandmma’s pockets.” 

Late 1800s

Men’s clothing, meanwhile, had more pockets than ever, Morano says, many of which weren’t visible to the outside observer. The hands-in-pocket gesture was a staple of nineteenth century photography. Pockets were for men’s men.

Many family portraits of the time feature the husband standing, hand-in-pocket, as his wife sat with her hands folded on her lap or around a Bible.


Along with many of the trappings of the Victorian era, fashion gave way to function for Westerners of all classes and genders at the outbreak of the World Wars. Women working on the war movement were wearing trousers for the first time, mostly men’s clothes tailored to fit. 

Female American college students at a farm, where they are working as replacements for men called up to the military in World War I, USA, May 1918.


These men’s pants had menswear pockets. But after the war, as a two-legged style slowly, but surely took off among more daring women, trousers taken up by the designers of the time – Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel among them. In the words of a Vogue editor in 1939, slacks had to be:

‘Not necessarily tailored like a man’s—after all, your figure isn’t the same. […] In the early, experimental days, slacks too often were accompanied by too mannish accessories.”

That, right there, was the trick: Acceptable trousers needed to be feminized – and one way to do it? Whittle down those bulky masculine pockets.

Or, hey, do away with them all together.

By the 1970s, trouser pants were here to stay, bolstered by the feminist movement and glossy magazines alike. At the same time, two more fashion trends endeavored to keep the pocket down: Statement handbags and and super-thin models. 

An ideal of slenderness — not just self-sufficiency — tightened fabrics and streamlined design, at about the same time the “it bag” became a thing. “Stay away from bulky pockets” became the rule for looking long and lean.

Much like earlier centuries’ reticule and pocket bag, the form transferred the function. Says Morano: “Handbags have taken such importance recently as accessories that convey meaning… it’s another reason [pockets could be] becoming obsolete.”

Smartphones, echoing the “needlecases and oranges” before them, have ended up in bags women carry on their arms or in their hands. Most purses come with a special phone flap. In the late 1980s, luxury handbags started to go by one name (“Kate”, “Birkin”):


Enter the giant smartphone.

“Maybe men are going to have to start carrying bags around,” Morano says. “Backpacks? They tend to have more pockets.”

And that, I suppose, is what we call “wearable technology.”

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