Pockets And Women’s Liberation: Why Not Both?

“All this time, we have been quietly permitting society to convince us that, in discarding the torturously repressive corset, we have definitively thwarted the patriarchal hold over female liberty Once And For All…

“While in actuality, our material freedom has been gradually snatched from right under our noses in the form of expensive jeans with fake pockets requiring additionally expensive handbags!

“Do with that information what you will.”

Self Portrait

Oh, snap – A challenge!

It sounds too simple, but the erosion of women’s pockets through the 19th and 20th centuries follows our struggle for liberation. The more autonomy women have, the fewer and smaller the pockets.

Bernadette Banner’s brief history condenses our struggle into a single point – The harder we fight, the more privacy gets taken.

Seated primly before the camera, dark hair scraped back from her magenta jacket, Bernadette clearly knows what she’s talking about. The video is a collaboration with Yale Press, publishers of The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives.

She speaks passionately about the “vast spacial luxury we were once afforded.”

The switch to sewn-in pockets has been so complete, removable pockets sounded weird at first.

But until the 16th century, everyone’s pockets were basically little flat bags tied to a belt and tucked under your clothes. Men attained sewn-in pockets in the early 1500s, while women continued wearing the older style under their many billowing skirts.

The thing is, pockets are pretty simple. They didn’t change much for a very long time. And for about 200 years, women seemed to like their tie-ons just fine.

Bernadette explains how they were made of different materials and personally decorated, “As they weren’t always seen, there wasn’t pressure for them to adhere to very specific designs according to fashion and to change them out according to the season.

“A pocket is a personal item, worn next to the body and often out of sight. And, perhaps most importantly, is representative of a material autonomy that many women, for much of history, were not able to partake in.

“The items kept in a pocket were personal, concealed, and uncontrolled by anyone but the wearer.”

Sewing them into the clothes made them more secure, but less personal. Being part of a garment meant they had to follow its form, and that form usually worked against us.

Long Underwear

Where the hell am I supposed to put pockets in this?!

Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and the demand for better treatment only grew louder. Naturally, fashion in the early 1800s took a sharp turn toward slim silhouettes, making pockets less private.

The inevitable accessorizing of handbags was rejected at the time as, “Not a fair representation of the substantial pockets which our ancesstresses wore; they were proper pockets.”

At least that writer had cultural memory to base an opinion on. We have forgotten so much!

Working-class women kept on wearing their handmade tie-ons, but trend chasers had to work harder and harder to keep their pockets from spoiling their Look. The feminine conflict between looking good and carrying your stuff was born.

The pocket switch for women’s clothes really took off around 1850, coincidentally just as the Industrial Revolution was making ready-made clothes affordable. Suddenly, a young woman with a job could buy more clothes than her mother ever owned!

In the 1880s the invention of the bicycle opened up new horizons, sparking a pretty serious anti-feminist backlash. It’s hard to imagine bikes being controversial, but no detail seems too small for patriarchal meddling.

“The latter part of the 19th century also sees a relative slimming of skirt silhouettes. Primarily during the last decade, the area across the hips in particular becomes so tightly fitted as to complicate the wearing of a tie-on pocket.”

No privacy for you, ladies! During this same time, women were gaining admittance to higher education and the marketplace, as well as clamoring for the vote. Is it a coincidence that merchants and thought leaders – All of them men! – might find reasons to constrict us in other ways?

Call me paranoid, but it got pretty ridiculous. “It was also quite common to hide pockets in hilariously illogical places, such as in the center back seam in late ’90s and early Edwardian skirts. Pockets could live under ruffles or drapes, even near the hem, just to ensure that one did always have at least one pocket, despite complex fitting restrictions.”

Thank goodness! I was nervous there for a second.

Jealous Moll

I sure wish I had a pocket for all this loot!

Supposedly, women’s pockets dwindled because manufacturers found them unprofitable. Strange that men’s clothing makers didn’t think of this, why throw money away?

Victorian women wrote quite a bit about how few pockets they had. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote three essays herself. “But pockets of this period were still mind-bendingly large to our modern sensibilities.”

Bernadette takes out a phone, a book, a bag of snacks, a water bottle, and a man’s pipe – All out of one skirt pocket!

The tie-on didn’t really die until the dawn of Modern Era, around 1900. Young women rejected them along with corsets and petticoats.

But putting our pockets in the hands of manufacturers left us with no control over how they’re made. I’m not saying I want to hand-sew all my own pockets from scraps, but add tie-on pockets to the list of practical female-centric clothing you won’t find in any store. 

“So, how did our pocket problem somehow get worse? How did the dilemma progress from just number to rapidly diminishing pocket size?”

Bernadette has one, opaque answer to this all-encompassing question: Fashion!

The demand for slimmer and slimmer silhouettes took every nook and cranny for keeping things. But she admits that even modern skirts and women’s coats lack storage, and somehow men’s tight fashions compensate with pockets in other places.

She even suggests men have never been required to carry handbags because they are easily stolen.

“People wearing feminine clothing in the 21st century are instructed that, in order to be ‘fashionable,’ our natural bodies must be a particular shape. And fashion forbid we obscure that, even just enough to be able to store a mobile phone!


The shape of my body is none of your business!

Because if a woman keeps something private, she has a secret. Every inch of personal space is hiding something. The more independent we are, the more scrutinized we are. You know, to make sure we’re using our freedom right.

And if a man can’t own you, he should at least get an unobstructed view of your butt, right?

Fashion is not your friend. What if we treated Fast Fashion like Fast Food, and learned to make our own at home? Sewing is another girly thing we gave up to join the Boy’s Club, but what if there’s more to it?