All I want for Christmas is a pocket. Down through the centuries, pockets – acclaimed by Mark Twain as “among the most useful of inventions” – have long been a gendered thing. Men have them; women seldom do.
For years I have been complaining about this inequality. Thus it was welcome to discover that someone – a woman naturally – has written a book that calls out this “pocket sexism.” Hannah Carlson’s Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close delves into the 500-year history of the pocket and catalogs its unequal benefits.
A lecturer in dress history at Rhode Island School of Design,” author Carlson starts out tracing the beginnings of the pocket in the 16th Century. The word itself was borrowed from the French word for bag, poche. When followed by the diminutive, -ette, it meant “a small bag.” The pocket was essentially an empty space. Without contents pockets are nothing but potential, waiting for content.
Tailors began stitching them into men’s breeches in the 1600s. Early-day pockets were often used to store weapons — knives and short-barreled pistols known as “pocket dags.” For their part, women had to make do with pendulous purses attached to belts, hanging low, dangling about mid-thigh over or under their gowns. Even those flimsy containers vanished when fashion decreed high-waisted dresses in the Edwardian era.
Denied useful pockets (decorative flaps don’t count), women have resorted to handbags, an inconvenient and expensive alternative, modeled after a lawyer’s attache case. These accessories are a constant psychic distraction (“where did I leave my handbag?”). In addition, there are legal drawbacks. When a woman walks out the door with a handbag, she will not receive the same legal protections as a man who is furnished with pockets. That issue was decided in a Supreme Court case, Wyoming v Houghton. In 1999 Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that searching a woman’s purse (unlike searching one’s pockets) did not violate Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Distinctions between pockets and satellite handbags matter, not only aesthetically and legally but also in terms of agency. That’s something that poet Emily Dickinson recognized in the 19th century when she insisted her dressmaker sew a single patch pocket into dresses she wore. In that pocket, Dickinson kept a short pencil and scraps of paper, reflecting her thoughts. As Pockets’ author Carlson observed: “She had a room of her own—and a reliable pocket.”
Throughout the years since Dickinson’s feat, many women have railed over the absence of pockets. Back in 1937, Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, declared she wanted to abolish all handbags. Bitterly complaining that the “bloody old handbag” was a nuisance, she announced her plan to devote a whole future issue to “just showing what you can do with pockets.” But, alas, her plan was dashed when she ran into the editor-in-chief. Her boss told Vreeland she sounded as if she’d lost her mind: No fashion magazine could risk losing the advertising revenue from handbag manufacturers.
Custom designers sometimes have tried to work oversized patch pockets and purse-like additions into fashion, but without much success. Even the addition of shallow pockets to women’s slacks (less useful than men’s roomier pockets) haven’t ended the reality of the gendered politics of pockets. One can only ask: Why can men enjoy up to 24 pockets (number found in some three-piece suits) and women seldom have even one?
In one inventive demonstration, a woman editor at BuzzFeed in 2017 conducted a real-world experiment to test how men would feel if they were rendered pocketless. She enlisted four male volunteers from her office and sewed their pockets shut. Experiencing pocketless pants for the first time, the volunteers not only left their work badges behind and forgot their wallets, but they also had difficulty ordering food and figuring out how to navigate a urinal while holding a cell phone. By the end of the day, one of the volunteers likened the experience to “knowing electricity had been invented but being forced to live in the dark.”
Hannah Carlson fills Pockets with such entertaining albeit bittersweet examples of what pocket sexism has meant. She observes that the inequality leaves its indelible mark on each generation. Acquisition of pockets was – and still is – a rite of passage in Western culture for boys, but not for girls. Little girls are still shoved into skinny jeans while little boys can expect mini-paratrooper pockets that button and snap. There’s no wonder many a mother has pleaded: “Please put pockets in girls’ jeans!”
Today each of us has a small role to play working towards pocket parity. And if you’re giving a female friend or relative a gift for Christmas, make it – not a pricey handbag (lord, you could spend thousands) – but a copy of Hannah Carlson’s Pockets and a shirt with a pocket roomy enough to hold her cell phone.