Pocket Patriarchy: The Sexist History Behind Women’s Pockets

Pocket Patriarchy: The Sexist History Behind Women’s Pockets

Sophia Elizondo-Bean (she/her), Staff Writer

Over the years, women’s pockets have been anywhere from 40 centimeters long to nonexistent. Starting in the 1600s, pockets for both men and women were tied around the waist and detachable like an old-fashioned fanny pack. These pockets were over 15 inches long which is big enough to fit 16 paintbrushes, half a musket, and just about any other supplies present during the enlightenment. Hundreds of years later in 2022, women’s pockets can barely hold an iPhone. 

Why such a dramatic change? Many assume the reason is financial. Pathetic pockets fuel the handbag market and save on fabric. “That just seems like the only logical explanation,” said Sophie Weatherill, a sophomore at Ida B. Wells. However, others were more critical. Senior, Eden Harmon said, “I’m not sure if that’s accurate.” We’ve been taught that the purse industry is the sole reason for pocket patriarchy but there is one major flaw to this idea. If the tragic storage of women’s pockets is to make money then why aren’t men’s pockets miniature as well?


The answer to this question starts during the 17th century when men’s pockets were integrated into the fabric of their garments while women only had access to exterior pockets. Tie-on pockets were made from cotton, leather, and wool or patched together by old collections of fabrics. Wearers could embroider their pockets and choose for them to open horizontally or vertically. These pockets were hidden beneath a petticoat which was a large skirt typically worn under dresses.


Since pockets weren’t regularly seen, women could choose how they wanted to express themselves which created a sense of individuality. It was their first experience with autonomy- the autonomy of an inanimate object.


While men’s pockets were sewn into their pants and easily accessible, women’s pockets were located underneath multiple layers of clothing. And in the 17th century just like today, it was not socially acceptable to go out in undergarments. This meant that while women had pockets, they could not be used in public.


In the mid-18th century, the hips of dresses widened which provided enough space for larger pockets. Women wore hoop petticoats which are skirts separated into multiple pieces. This design created slits on both sides and therefore, giant pockets. While this clothing style was only accessible to upper-class women and lasted a very short period, the storage opportunities were dreamlike. 


Soon, the trend of form-fitting dresses began and the tight fabric could not accommodate pockets without compromising on fashion. Fashion journalists began pushing reticules or small purses to replace the “abnormally large” pockets. Meanwhile, the size of men’s pockets was never questioned by the clothing industry.


Women began hiding pockets in many unusual areas such as between the ruffles in their dresses. Without in-seam pockets, they were at risk of pickpocketing or having their reticules cut off. 


However, in some ways, tie-on pockets were more functional than sewn pockets. Women would need to sew pockets into every single item of clothing which requires a lot of additional effort. Meanwhile, tie-on pockets matched everything in their wardrobe because they weren’t visible. But the positives of tie-on pockets were due to the lack of pockets in manufactured clothing, not the betterment of women’s lives. 


Today, society deems women’s pockets unnecessary and unattractive due to the proof that women are carrying things. Form-fitting pants do not hide the key in your back pocket which has been labeled as aesthetically displeasing. 


The need to hide every bump on the body has only been applied to women. In fact, in the early 19th century tight fitting pants became part of popular men’s wear. Instead of being deprived of all storage, additional pockets were added to men’s coats to make up for the lack of pants pockets. 


In 2022, women’s pockets are approximately 48% shorter than men’s. The difference is almost laughable considering the average cell phone is over 6 inches. And the limitations don’t end there.


One of the most horrid functions of modern-day pants is “fake pockets,” said Dana Sendelbach, a 10th grader at Ida B. Wells. These tiny slips have zero purpose with space so small that once something goes in it may never come out. “They think we care more about fashion than function,” said Sendelbach, “and I really love functional fashion.” Other pocket wearers agreed that they put storage over contorting their bodies. “Whenever I’m buying pants, if they don’t have good pockets, I usually just put them back,” said Weatherill. 

The bottom line is that clothing designers need to consider the practicality of women’s clothing. It’s not the 17th century anymore. Women have phones, keys, and granola bars to carry. Society’s expectations of women have evolved in the last hundreds of years and they need pockets that support them in their responsibilities.