The politics of the pocket
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.