Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close

  • By Hannah Carlson
  • Algonquin
  • 320 pp.

Unpacking the gendered politics behind those purposeful pouches.

Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close

Pockets is a meticulously researched study by Hannah Carlson, an historian of material culture, who expertly traces the pocket from its origins through the present day to its potential future. “From a design perspective, pockets are operationally unique,” she writes in her introduction. “They are the only functional part of clothing that does not contribute in some way to the project of dressing the body. Unlike zippers, lacings, buttons, and belt loops, pockets do not help us put on, take off, or adjust the fit of our clothes.”

Any thorough discussion of pockets must account for their social, political, and historical milieux, and — of course — the centuries-old disparity between who gets them (usually men) and who doesn’t (usually women). What we think of as modern pockets — inset pouches into which we can slip our hands — are “something of an oddity that arose in the context of European tailoring traditions.” Before pockets, both men and women attached purses or exterior pouches to their garments. In fact, the first use of the term “pocket,” which comes from the French word for bag, poche, referred to detachable bags. It was only in the 16th century that sewn-in pockets began to appear in tailors’ invoices for menswear.

Early on, pockets became embroiled in political matters, as “some of the first objects intended to be carried in pockets” were “small-scale handguns,” which, due to technological innovations in the 1500s, could now be made much tinier. In France, a 1564 ordinance “banned placing pockets of a certain length” in men’s trunk hose, “presumably in an attempt to prevent the concealment of large guns.” Even in late-19th-century America, “state legislatures attempted to ban outright the new back or seat pockets on men’s trousers, calling them ‘pistol pockets.’”

From these beginnings, the view that “pockets could enable deadly violence” imbued them with mystery and potency. “Once the wearer places something inside their pocket,” writes Carlson, “that thing disappears, enfolded and seemingly absorbed into uncertain depths.”

While pockets proliferated in men’s fashion — especially after the development of the three-piece suit in the late 17th century — “women continued to wear some variation of the restricted bodice and full skirts that they had since the medieval era” and to carry detachable pockets or purses. For at least two centuries, Carlson explains, women have voiced their displeasure at the lack of integrated pockets in womenswear:

“Though the accounts of pocket disparity were (and still are) often cloaked in humor or slight condescension, at their core there is a serious question: why is it that men’s clothes are full of integrated, sewn-in pockets, while women’s have so few? As women made the transition to modern dress, and still did not achieve anything like parity, they began to ask the question more insistently. The suspicion that there was a sexual politics around preparedness, that privilege was something that could be stitched into one’s trousers, fueled a proxy battle of the sexes that has continued to simmer for over two centuries.”

The author examines a number of explanations for why women’s clothing has not offered pockets in such constant abundance as men’s: Women’s fashions changed rapidly (high-waisted dresses, bustles, and other features making it challenging to incorporate pockets) while men’s suits have remained relatively stable; women feared unsightly “bulges” caused by pockets that could ruin a form-fitting look; industrialized production methods for manufacturing womenswear lagged behind menswear by about a hundred years; and so on. The bottom line, though, is that if pockets are a tool of preparedness and power, clothing lacking them impacts its wearers. Carlson writes:

“Here, then, is the crux of the pocket problem. Only one sex requires functional clothing because only one sex is truly expected to use and demand it. Very old ideas about women’s place, about the more limited social and economic contributions they are expected to make, remain with us and are reflected in the clothing we create and agree to wear.”

A 2018 study found that the pockets in 80 pairs of jeans from the top 20 American brands showed a disparity between men’s and women’s pocket sizes: Women’s pockets are 48 percent shorter and 6.5 percent narrower on average. Even when it comes to toddlers — who are not troubled by the need for form-fitting clothing — girls’ outfits have fewer and smaller pockets than boys’.

These gender disparities are not just a matter of convenience. Carlson notes that women carrying purses “do not receive the same legal protections as men who are furnished with pockets.” In the 1999 Supreme Court case Wyoming v. Houghton, which dealt with the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the justices ruled that a purse could be searched, while pockets, “which lie somewhere between clothing and the body,” could not.

Carlson’s wide-ranging study goes beyond gender disparities, however. In a chapter on “Pocket Attitudes,” she explores gestures: “Putting hands in pockets remains a pose assumed by debonair sophisticates, troubled loners, and hipster wannabes alike, and employed in fashion spreads, advertising, and various forms of self-promotion.” A chapter on “Pocket Inventories” is dedicated to what we keep in our pockets, while another assesses pockets as fashion statements.

In the final chapter, “Pocket Utopias: Dreaming of a Pocketless World,” Carlson imagines a time when pockets could become obsolete — at least for the elite. Not having pockets may become the new status symbol, suggesting “that wearers do not actually need anything, that they have outsourced their support and security to an army of invisible retainers. Other people stand by to carry the keys and make the appointments. These lucky wearers have managed to emancipate themselves from burdensome stuff.”

Carlson’s detailed and roving examination of the pocket, a substantial and fascinating book filled with lavish color illustrations, is definitely worth a read — even if it likely won’t fit in anyone’s, well, you know.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.

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