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The politics of the pocket

April 21, 2010

Pockets. They are not, one would have thought, a controversial issue – there is, after all, a limit to how much controversy one can fit down one’s trousers. (Insert joke about adulterous celebrity here.) Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, started a revolution over pockets or even so much as stood for the Pocket Party. But right now the politics of the pocket are much on my mind, mainly because they intrude every time I try and retrieve my iPod.

I spend most of my time in jeans. Some time ago, my beloved primary pair lost a belt-loop, leading to a distressing amount of waist-sag, and so I stopped wearing them. Recently, I picked up a pair of men’s jeans in a charity shop for a drag thing, and after the thing continued wearing them because, well, they’re decent jeans.

Now to the point. I have not substantially changed size between buying these two pairs of jeans, from which one can deduce that the jeans themselves are probably also pretty much the same size, allowing for some differences of shape. However, I am continually blindsided by the sheer size of the pockets in the men’s pair: I reach for my keys, or student card, or phone, and discover that the item in question has disappeared to the very bottom of the pocket, halfway down my thigh. I have never had this problem when wearing women’s jeans.

The pockets on my sadly lamented other jeans were just right: big enough to fit phone, keys and hand, which is the maximum they ever need to contain. New pockets are enormous.

As someone who habitually shops on the women’s side of the aisle, I’m no stranger to the pocket binary. Much less women’s clothing has pockets at all: women’s shirts, suit jackets, work trousers, all tend to be pocket-free, casual trousers are pocket-light, and your chances of finding a skirt with pockets are pretty much nil. Even coats are much, much less likely to have pockets.

Such a tiny thing, one might say, but it builds up over time, and, more importantly, reinforces oppressive systems.

It’s a common joke, isn’t it, that women carry around huge handbags full of jumbled crap, and then can never find what they need in there when they need it. The woman having her handbag stolen is an equally common trope. Hell, even ‘handbags at dawn’ is enough of a cliché to have its own knowingly ironic handle. The handbag is an integral ingredient of modern Western feminine performance, to the point where they’re marketed as an essential accessory that you have to have lots of different ones of, to match your outfit, like shoes. It’s become an extra garment, effectively, rather than the utilitarian object other sorts of bag are.

But the existence of the handbag is only made necessary by a lack of pockets. In a lot of instances bags are counterproductive: they take up one hand, they weigh on your shoulder or your elbow, they get lost, they get stolen. If you’re going out and all you really need is phone, keys, ID and money, pockets ought to be the sensible solution. Then your valuables are on your person, out of sight, and you have both hands free.

But we don’t have pockets, so women buy bags, so the designers go “Oh, women buy bags, so they don’t need pockets!” and it is a stupid and self-reinforcing cycle.

Why, though, are women’s clothes made without pockets in the first place? I can only think of two reasons, and neither is good. Firstly, that pockets – specifically pockets being used for their intended purpose, i.e. being full of stuff – mess up the look of fitted clothing. And yes, things in pockets bulge; that is what they do. But it’s subscribing to the idea that aesthetics are inherently more important than basic functionality in women’s clothing; that women should be ornamental, rather than actually able to do anything.

And secondly, not being able to carry your own stuff forces dependence on someone who’s able to carry it for you. I suspect this is more an underlying mindset than a deliberate purpose, but it’s definitely there. Offering to carry something for someone can be polite, chivalrous, but the practical upshot is that you now have their stuff. It’s something that can be abused; not saying it is, certainly not often, but it’s something to take into account.

The second question is this: why are the pockets on men’s clothing so disproportionately huge?

J owns a pair of baggy goth jeans with back pockets so enormous he can fit a two-litre bottle of Coke in either one. His coat – just an ordinary coat – can happily contain bottles of Ribena syrup and bags of rice. Graham, proud owner of several army-surplus trenchcoats, has been known to produce entire picnics out of his pockets. Seamus doesn’t need to carry a bag to class, because his jacket pockets will accommodate pretty much any book smaller than a collected Shakespeare.

I think what’s going on here is to do with the particular set of virtues associated with Western masculinity. Specifically, being Crazy Prepared: you see it in websites and books (serious and ironic) that claim a Real Man should be able to reef a mainsail, wrestle a bear, make his own gunpowder and correctly address the second cousin of an earl. It’s all about the capability, the ready-for-anything-ness.

Being able to instantly deal with whatever the world can throw at you is constructed as a peculiarly masculine virtue, and being able to instantly produce a required object from the recesses of one’s clothing is a sub-trope of this. Swiss Army Knife? In the pocket. Bottle of whiskey? In the pocket. Packet of crisps, tab of paracetamol, watch, small change, dice, pens? In the pocket. It isn’t coincidence that the Doctor, who is in many ways the walking incarnation of Crazy Prepared (largely as a result of having seen absolutely everything) has TARDIS-pockets theoretically infinite in size.

The military being predominantly male, and having been the template for masculinity for centuries, I think the concept of Real-Men-Are-Ready-For-Anything probably leaked into civilian masculinity from the army, where Crazy Prepared is, or should be, standard procedure (because if you aren’t carrying that crucial item you may well die.) Hence the all-enveloping trenchcoat and the multi-pocketed combat trouser. Fewer people have contact with military culture than used to, but the general concept is here to stay.

The idea of pockets-as-survival-kit certainly explains the disproportionately huge pockets available on men’s clothing. It just bugs the hell out of me that even in the twenty-first century that idea hasn’t managed to cross over to the women’s side of things, or, more specifically, to the feminine side of things. Those of us who are happy to maintain a neutral or masculine presentation are mostly okay, but the femme-y contingent are stuck.

Femininity is a gender expression. It is not an index of competence; liking frilly dresses and flowers in your hair (or whatever; shows how much I know about it), being a girly girl, has all of zero effect on how good you actually are at stuff. Feminine women write law and change tyres. But currently the way we approach clothing forces the confluence of femininity and incompetence: bags that restrict a hand, shoes you can’t run in, clothes that don’t let you carry things. Massive impracticality is, unfortunately, solidly coded feminine.

I would like to see more pocket-based options at the feminine end of the scale – surely there is some badass designer who can turn out dresses, or nice trousers, covered in pockets? I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of femme-y women who would seize upon them. For now, I personally am going to start looking harder at the men’s jeans. And maybe buy a trenchcoat.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 21, 2010 4:56 pm

    Heh. I get infuriated at small pockets in mens’ jeans, let alone womens’. This is mainly because of my (some would say pointlessly) large set of keys. Also it’s based on my insistence of putting my keys and wallet in my left pocket and phone and car key in my right pocket. (I really do hope I’m not the only person who does this).

    God help me if I had to wear a dress.

    I’m sure there probably already is some form of utilitarian dressmaker on this here Internet though.

  2. Gembird permalink
    April 25, 2010 8:34 pm

    I’ve found that the only way around it is to dress goth. Not only do the trousers with 900 giant pockets come in women’s sizes, you can also get skirts, coats and tops with pockets you can actually keep stuff in. You can even get fitted frilly Victorian jackets with proper pockets (the type you can fit a wallet and keys in) on the front and extra pockets tucked away under arms and such for little things like sparfe change.

    Of course, the problem with that is that you still get othered, but instead of it being because you’re a silly girl who can’t do anything and needs a handbag, it’s because you’re evil.

    So yes, somebody definitely needs to make more clothes with pockets for women. Even if all it does is make me carry around more crap I don’t need.

  3. UnFit permalink
    April 25, 2010 10:26 pm

    As a fashion major who has been bugged by this forever, I thank you for this post.
    Now I want to do a historical investigation… Where and when was that watershed moment that gave men but not women pockets?
    In historical garments of course there were no pockets as such, but both genders had space to tuck stuff away in their sleeves or under their garters or something.
    And hey, come to think of it, there was that area when men wore ridiculously stuffed out codpieces that they actually kept their stuff in. I wonder if that has anything to do with it?

    Also, my favorite skirt has a big cargo pocket. And it’s from H&M. But I think that was just a lucky grab, about twelve seasons ago.

  4. UnFit permalink
    April 25, 2010 10:26 pm

    *there was that era, not area.

  5. Kyra permalink
    April 26, 2010 1:10 am

    I suffered from this for a long time, with a love for formfitting (or at least standard-women’s) jeans as my collection of Stuff I Tend To Need grew bigger. It started out as just a minor hassle, and then my parents started buying cars with big bulky keys and remote control key fobs and such . . . (I have, incidentally, never liked purses. Not only is it irritating to have to lug something around all the time, I am not exactly gifted with remembering things, and if I have to use one I’m always worried about losing it.)

    Then at some point I hit on slinging keys from a carabiner, which quickly morphed into a chain of them from one belt loop to another. This is now my ever-present purse/pocket substitute (although I still keep wallet and cell phone in my back pockets); I am always carrying two keyrings, two flash drives, a tiny flashlight, a hair tie, and a collection of keychains on them, and my digital camera whenever I decide I’m likely to want it along. Sometimes a pen, clipped to a key ring. Sometimes a set of allen wrenches, although they jingle a bit too much, and catch on things. I’m looking for a tiny crescent wrench or a screwdriver with a loop attached. It’s awesome.

    I have also, recently, discovered men’s pants (and men’s work boots, but that is a whole ‘nother rant). But I still keep the carabiner-loop. It’s me.

  6. Dominique Millette permalink
    April 26, 2010 4:59 pm

    This is a big issue for me also. I’m stubborn as hell, and I hunt for pocketed clothing. In fact, I refuse to buy trousers without them. Same for jackets. At the very least, I will always be able to fit keys in my clothes.

  7. Rikibeth permalink
    April 26, 2010 8:47 pm

    When I was working as a cook, it was very easy: wallet in back pocket, phone and Sharpie in left front, keys in right front. iPod didn’t go in a pocket just because I used it in a dock on my workspace, and then jacked it into my car, so carrying it between car and kitchen was no big deal.

    Now I’m working in a job where I have to dress “business casual” at a minimum, and it’s more complicated. Pants pockets in dressy pants are HOPELESS for carrying anything, because they’re already cut so closely that I need to wear thong underwear. I’m lucky to have front pockets in my jackets, big enough for phone and wallet, but the keys are problematic. The job came with a canvas briefcase; I’ve put my keys on a carabiner and I clip them to the strap hardware, and I’ve also repurposed a small evening clutch to keep inside the briefcase for phone/wallet/lipgloss, because even though the jacket pockets will handle them, they do spoil the lines.

    I wish that inside front pockets were standard on women’s jackets, just like they are for men’s suit coats and sport coats. I wore a man’s sport coat all through high school and that inner pocket was my best friend.

  8. Heather permalink
    April 27, 2010 7:18 am

    One of my fabourite scenes in one of my favourite movies shows a strong, beautiful woman in a cocktail gown which has very visible pockets. She even sticks her hands in them as she speaks.
    The birthday party scene in “All About Eve” and the amazing Bette Davis.
    I always image that gown in a dark green with black trim. (The original was probably fur.)

    Hand son hips but you can see the trim.

    And one with Ms Norma Jean just for fun.


  9. Zora permalink
    April 28, 2010 10:27 pm

    I am a feind about pockets. I won’t buy pants without them. It drives me crazy not being able to tuck something away on my person, but also I have read a bit about the history of pockets in women’s clothing and let me tell you, all those inconveniences are intentional. Yes, it’s true. In the 20’s sufferegettes were slandered by telling folks that they had POCKETS in their clothes! Oh, the horror! Pockets! Also, it was considered unseemly for a woman to have a latch key.

    I gleened this information when I worked in a periodicals archive and looked at more fashion, humor and lifestyle magazines from the last 100 years than you can shake a stick at.

  10. May 19, 2010 4:55 pm

    The utopia by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, has a great big giant rant on pockets. In fact, that’s the protagonist’s “OMG we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment: the locals loan her clothes, and the clothes have pockets. Eleventy!!11!

    So little has changed since 1915. :-/

  11. May 21, 2010 5:06 am

    I have pondered this many times as a woman and a type 1 diabetic. To get through the day I need to carry around my glucose testing kit and my insulin pens, as well as the other femme stuff: purse, keys, phone, lip gloss, and a billion useless receipts.

    When a woman had her bag stolen in front of our apartment building I pondered this again but never as beautifully as this. Thanks for connecting all these dots!

  12. May 25, 2010 12:13 pm

    When I was a kid, and my mom took me on my first trip to the big city, she taught me that the safest thing to do was to keep your money in your bra. Even today I sometimes shove my debit card in one of the cups and tuck my phone in the strap under my arm. I inherited her 36DD boobs, however, so we might be able to pull this off more easily than some.

  13. Smilecat permalink
    July 2, 2010 10:22 pm

    “Now I want to do a historical investigation… Where and when was that watershed moment that gave men but not women pockets?
    In historical garments of course there were no pockets as such, but both genders had space to tuck stuff away in their sleeves or under their garters or something.”

    Depending on your time and location the “there were not pockets” trope is completely false. Pockets in women’s fashions have come and gone for centuries, depending on how close/thin the skirt was. Hoop skirts had pockets hidden in their flounces and folds. Empire/Regency dresses did not. 1890s full A-line skirts had pockets, the natural form and late bustle of the 1880s did not. The 18th century had pockets as pouches tied around the waist and reached through slits in the skirt. The early 1770s had pocket hoops where the entire hip enhancer functioned as giant caned pockets. The 1830s through early 1860s had pockets. Mid 1860s did not. The full and fluffy early 1870s bustle skirts had pockets. Edwardian fashions couldn’t hide pockets but 1950s full skirts could and did. And sometimes the 1950s fitted skirts/dresses had giant patch pockets on the outside.

  14. Kate permalink
    July 13, 2010 2:42 am

    You’ve noticed that pockets on men’s jeans have gotten bigger too? I thought I was hallucinating!


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