A Pocketful of Politics

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

Generation Z would call me a Generation X cisgender female (she/her), and they are correct. My dresses are classic; my skirts and pants: tailored. But as none of my clothing has a handy receptacle for holding stuff sewn into its smooth lines, I have to rummage around in my handbag for purse, car keys, mask, and phone, then wield each independently. I wonder if women’s clothing has always been so uncooperative, pocket-wise? The answer is yes and no; it’s complicated.

[caption id="attachment_3877" align="alignleft" width="359"] Photo: Alberto Bobbera, Unsplash[/caption]

The provenance of the pocket is a nuanced interconnection between masculine and feminine uses and designs - a weaving of social commentary. It’s fascinating that a portable patch of unexpected space - unobtrusive and secretive - has narrated such a political story of power and liberation. Sensitive to fashion changes and gender association, pockets offer a wealth of cultural information, commencing around 3,300 BCE.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

Generation Z would call me a Generation X cisgender female (she/her), and they are correct. My dresses are classic; my skirts and pants: tailored. But as none of my clothing has a handy receptacle for holding stuff sewn into its smooth lines, I have to rummage around in my handbag for purse, car keys, mask, and phone, then wield each independently. I wonder if women’s clothing has always been so uncooperative, pocket-wise? The answer is yes and no; it’s complicated.

Photo: Alberto Bobbera, Unsplash

The provenance of the pocket is a nuanced interconnection between masculine and feminine uses and designs – a weaving of social commentary. It’s fascinating that a portable patch of unexpected space – unobtrusive and secretive – has narrated such a political story of power and liberation. Sensitive to fashion changes and gender association, pockets offer a wealth of cultural information, commencing around 3,300 BCE.

The mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman were discovered in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. Ötzi wore a belt with a pouch attached containing useful items relative to his survival: tools such as a drill, bone awl, and flint flake. It seems Ötzi was on to something because during the centuries following, tie on pockets continued to be an important accessory right up until the renaissance period. Some comprised smallish drawstring pouches, others were more capacious. All were equally relevant to men’s and women’s attire, either latched to a belt or accessible via a strategically placed slit in the garment of choice.

At the end of the 1600s, men’s fashion took a turn towards convenience, and handy pockets were sewn into jackets, waistcoats, tunics, and trousers. But things just got more complicated for the women of the time, who continued – for another hundred years or so – to be sartorially disadvantaged. Encumbered with layer upon layer of heavy, constricting fabric with tie-on pockets (beautifully embroidered and encasing a multitude of life necessities such as cake, snuffbox, pincushion, needle, and thread) sandwiched between, women were dressed to the hilt. Wearing shift, garters, stockings, bloomers, stay, skirts, stomacher, and gown they were so weighed down that their health suffered. Eventually, seventeenth-century women rejected their pendulous pouches and the pocket as a tied on device morphed into a minuscule reticule or bag.

But a handbag is not a pocket – even though the words ‘pouch’ and ‘pocket’ are related through the Middle English/Northern French word pouche, originally portraying a small bag. As men had already enjoyed the freedom and convenience of in-sewn pockets for almost a millennium, pocket improvements for women’s clothing were needed, too – and delivered.

The British Rational Dress Society must’ve had something to do with the revolutionary changes that transpired. Founded in 1891, the Society encouraged women to change tack and dress for better health. They were inspired to wear boneless stays and loose trousers that would free them for easy movement – especially, for instance, the new-found, happy craze of bicycling.

The “New Woman’s” rational style of fashion was more slimly silhouetted, sporty, tailored, and increasingly influenced by menswear. However, alongside the exciting fresh styles came new expectations and fears regarding the shifting sands of gender norms. The New Woman was perceived as a threat – parodied by an 1892 cartoon in satirical magazine Punch, which mocked her look as trivial and foolish.

Punch depicted a woman wearing tailored dress and holding a top hat. The hat was an accessory indicative of man’s privacy, wealth, authority, the right to property ownership, and all the posturing of gentility that goes with this element of a gentleman’s dress. Not only did the top hat have the advantage of adding status and height to its wearer it also held storage space – a lofty corollary to pockets. In allowing women to gain metaphorical access to this private male accessory and thereby take men down a size or two, Punch revealed deep-seated masculine anxieties. Might the New Woman with her transgressive potential for emancipation and emasculation eventually appropriate the masculine privileges represented by the top hat?

Regardless of Punch’s insightful observations, Society tailor-mades grew in popularity and were symbolic of the New Woman. Even so, these skirted suits of the 1890s were never so well equipped with pockets as their male counterparts. A lack of pocket equality didn’t stop women from flaunting what they did have, though. Cheekily standing or walking with hands in pockets, these women created outrage amongst men as they crossed over a threshold of simple imitation to actually act like men.

An 1894 edition of The Graphic echoes the perceived atrocity: “The inevitable feminine coat and skirt nauseates the eye just now … I observe now that the ladies, like men, walk with hands in their pockets … The pockets of the ‘New Woman,’ admirably useful as they are, seem likely to prove her new fetish, to stand her instead of blushes and shyness and embarrassment, for who can be any of these things while she stands with her hands in her pockets?”

The affrontery of a pocket-slouching woman was somewhat dissolved by the timely advent of the Art Nouveau movement. This era sought to soften women’s fashion towards smooth, sleek Grecian lines that made no allowance for external or internal pockets. Just when the politics of pockets were veering in favour of women – with all the associated cultural implications – pockets were on the down again. Why did women not complain then and there and demand their inclusion when pockets represented the great gender divide more than any other item of clothing?

The question hit a pinnacle at the turn of the century when men’s suits sported somewhere around 15 pockets, and women were justifiably crying “We want pockets, too!”. In 1905, Charlotte P. Gilman of the New York Times pointed out the obvious discrepancies between men’s and women’s clothing (and the underlying societal reasons): “One supremacy there is in men’s clothing … its adaptation to pockets.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that women finally got a proper look-in when a 1910 “Suffragette Suit” with no less than six pockets became all the rage. As women found new freedoms with the national suffrage amendment of 1920 and increased career options during and after World War One, practical clothing with trousers and large pockets became the norm.

To corroborate (and celebrate), in the 1920s, designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel began sewing pockets into her distinctive jackets. Her designs were loose and fluid; her silhouettes: androgynous, a Latin word stemming from ‘androgyne‘ and defining a mix of male and female physical characteristics. Chanel loved the idea of a look that embodied the liberated woman; one who could move and breathe in her clothes, just like men did in theirs. Chanel popularised the suit, which was slightly masculine in its cut, and ideal for the post-war woman making her first foray into the business world. In doing so, Chanel’s work became a form of female emancipation. Despite their earlier relative rarity, pockets as real estate became much more outspoken in describing fashion mores for women.

Those ongoing shifts in political, social, and cultural roles continued to compel the ‘rational’ woman to wear masculine-inspired fashions such as simple tailored skirt suits, ties, and starched blouses. A certain feminisation of the look still existed, however, as depicted by British designer Edward Molyneux. He chose to emphasise the shape of a woman’s waist by adding dimensional pockets to her suit and the added bulk worn at hip-level intensified the ‘hourglass figure’ popular at the time. Another designer, American Claire McCardell, created dresses with hidden side seam pockets, encouraging and highlighting the casually elegant stance of placing a hand inside. Women wanted pockets – and they got them, affirmed by the attire worn by public figures like actresses Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn.

Post-World War Two, patriarchal designers reverted to pocketless clothing for women, and gender connotations fired up again. In the ‘50s, founder of world class fashion house Christian Dior led the brigade on an ultra-feminisation of women’s fashion. Dior brought back boned bustier-style bodices, hip padding, wasp-waisted corsets, and petticoats that made his dresses flare out from the waist, giving his models a very curvaceous form. He also shrunk or removed functional pockets completely. In 1954, Dior is quoted as saying: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” The growing handbag market further decimated the inclusion of pockets in womenswear or inspired designers to make women’s pockets tiny or fake.

Although Dior retained his iconic status as one of the world’s most recognised and revered fashion stylists, the counterculture and pop culture of the ‘70s did their best to slam the label. A new type of androgynous fashion became desirable – one that was neither feminine nor masculine and instead was gender-inclusive and gender-neutral.

The style flew effortlessly beyond the confines of Chanel’s classic couture and into an extreme and exciting melding of male and female.

Paraded by celebrities and glam musicians such as David Bowie, Grace Jones, Madonna, Prince, and Boy George, androgynous fashion, often accompanied by sexual ambiguity, went off in mainstream society as well. Today, Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Eddie Redmayne, Tilda Swinton, and Timothée Chalamet rock the look. Clothes made by British designer Toogood, Portland USA’s Wildfang, New York’s Telfar and One DNA, and luxury brands like Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and Stella McCartney all include gender-neutral components in their collections.

Photo: Armin Rastgar, Unsplash

Jackets, vests, suits, pants, shorts, shirts, and coats have one thing in common – pockets. Garments that make a statement about gender equality and prevaricate a judgmental society.

Products labelled as genderless, gender-neutral or unisex have surged by 109 percent in the United States since October 2020, according to trend forecasting company WGSN. It’s taken a hundred years of wafting and wending from when Punch described the Rational Society’s ‘New Woman’ as “The Sterner Sex”. She inverted gender stereotypes and tipped the political division between male and female clothing into the androgynous realm so relevant today. We have much to thank her for.

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