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The Politics of Pockets

The history of pockets isn’t just sexist, it’s political

Hillary Clinton wore a deceptively simple suit when she took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to accept the party’s nomination for president. Its impeccable tailoring announced Clinton’s authority; its snowy whiteness connected her to the suffragette movement; and, with no designer claiming it, the suit seems to transcend fashion — unnamed, it belonged to every woman. All of these points make Hillary’s white suit a significant garment, but the suit did more than make Clinton look powerful. One omission in Clinton’s suit whispered a long, questionable history, and that is this: It has no pockets.

Much has been written about how sexism dictates whether a garment gets usable pockets. While class unquestionably plays a part, men’s clothing tends to have capacious, visible pockets; women’s clothing tends to have small pockets, if any at all. Content with their pockets, men have little to say about them, but women have been complaining about the inadequacy of their pockets for more than a century. "One supremacy there is in men’s clothing… its adaptation to pockets," Charlotte P. Gilman wrote for the New York Times in 1905. She continues, "Women have from time to time carried bags, sometimes sewn in, sometimes tied on, sometimes brandished in the hand, but a bag is not a pocket."

An historical reenactment of medieval bags. Photo: DEA / C. BALOSSINI / Getty

Truer words have rarely been written. A bag is not a pocket, and pockets — more than pants, more than ties, more than boxer-briefs, even more than suits — are the great clothing gender divide. Pockets are political, but probably not in the way you’d first expect.

Once upon a time, everyone carried bags. In the Medieval era, both men and women tied their bags to the waist or wore them suspended from belts; these bags looked very much like Renfaire fanny packs. As the rural world grew more urban and criminals more sophisticated, people cunningly hid their external pockets under layers of clothing to hinder cutpurses; men’s jackets and women’s petticoats were outfitted with little slits that allowed to you access your tied-on pockets through your clothing.

Hariette Wilson with Reticule. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty

Only in the late seventeenth century did pockets make their move to become part of men’s clothing, permanently sewn into coats, waistcoats, and trousers; women’s pockets, however, failed to make the same migration. Lacking built-in pockets, women continued to hide their tied-on pockets, which were large, often pendulous bags. Secreted under their petticoats, panniers, and bustles, these highly decorated pockets swung heavy with their contents. You could fit a lot in those pockets — sewing kits, food, keys, spectacles, watches, scent bottles, combs, snuffboxes, writing materials, and money all found their place.

The French Revolution changed everything. While the mid-eighteenth century lavished in rococo, wide skirts that screamed decadence and wealth in their yards and yards of fabric, the end of the eighteenth century whispered restraint. Skirts pulled in close to the body, the natural waist crept ever upward, and the silhouette thinned to a slender column. This neoclassical look had no room for pouchy pockets, yet women still needed to carry their stuff. The reticule, a small, highly decorated purse, was born — and like a pernicious poltergeist, it has never really gone away. On the heels of the reticule, chatelaines — waist chains that resemble big, tinkling charm bracelets for the very busy — came into the consumer consciousness in 1828. Unlike purses, which hid everything away, these fashionable belts put women’s necessities on display.

A chatelaine. Photo: Heritage Images/ Getty

Writing for The Spectator in 2011, Paul Johnson offers a witty, thumbnail history of the sartorial convention of the pocket, and he caps his piece with a 1954 Christian Dior bon mot: "Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration." Tease apart that quote and you get a fairly essentialist view of gender roles as they play out in clothing. Men’s dress is designed for utility; women’s dress is designed for beauty. It’s not a giant leap to see how pockets, or the lack thereof, reinforce sexist ideas of gender. Men are busy doing things; women are busy being looked at. Who needs pockets?

This analysis of Western dress goes down pretty easy — maybe a little too easy. It’s not to say that pocket sexism isn’t true. It is to say that pockets are more than sexist: they’re political. One way to look at the transfiguration of women’s tied-on, capacious pockets of the mid-eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century’s tiny, hand-held reticule is to consider that this transformation occurred as the French Revolution, a time that violently challenged established notions of property, privacy, and propriety. Women’s pockets were private spaces they carried into the public with increasing freedom, and during a revolutionary time, this freedom was very, very frightening. The less women could carry, the less freedom they had. Take away pockets happily hidden under garments, and you limit women’s ability to navigate public spaces, to carry seditious (or merely amorous) writing, or to travel unaccompanied.

Pockets in women’s dress hit a watershed moment in the fin-de-siècle Rational Dress campaign. Founded in 1891, the Rational Dress Society called for women to dress for health, ditching corsets in favor of boneless stays and bloomers, wearing loose trousers, and adopting clothing that allowed for movement, especially bicycling. It hit its pinnacle just around the turn of the century, a time when men’s suits sported somewhere around 15 pockets — so it’s no coincidence that pockets abound in Rational Dress. An 1899 New York Times piece makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that civilization itself is founded on pockets. "As we become more civilized, we need more pockets," the piece says, "No pocketless people has ever been great since pockets were invented, and the female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless."

Women riding 1880's bicycles. Photo: Mondadori/ Getty

Side by side with the Rational Dress Society was the New Woman, feminism’s first wave that included suffragettes, bluestockings, graduates of the Seven Sisters, and sundry other radicals who believed that women should have equal political and financial standing with men. Fashionable fin-de-siècle female clothing had fussy, tiny, impractical pockets that weren’t designed to hold anything. Rational Dress, however, allowed women to swagger with their hands in their pockets, a point that shocked one writer for period mag The Graphic in 1894: "The pockets of the ‘New Woman,’ admirably useful as they are, seem likely to prove her new fetish, to stand her instead of blushes and shyness and embarrassment, for who can be any of these things while she stands with her hands in her pockets?"

Advancing the notion of pockets as distinctly masculine, one 1895 designer of women’s bicycle "costumes" even included pockets for pistols. "Not all of them want to carry a revolver," says the anonymous tailor quoted by the New York Times, "but a large percentage do and make no ‘bones’ about saying so. Even when they do not tell me why they want the pocket, they often betray their purpose by asking to have it lined with duck or leather." You have to hand it to the pistol-packing women riding turn-of-the-century bicycles in their bloomers and split-skirt suits. The Nineteenth Amendment was still 26 years away when these women were practicing their Second Amendment rights.

Female friends enjoying their pockets in 1926. Photo: Davis/ Getty

"Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit" reads a 1910 NY Times headline, and pockets aplenty is what you’d expect for a woman with polls on her mind. The suit, the piece explains, has seven or eight pockets, "all in sight and all easy to find, even for the wearer." This last bit about visible, straightforward pockets hints at the lingering anxiety over women’s clothing, privacy, and property. It’s not merely that women will strut with their hands in their pockets, on point to challenge men; it’s that women’s pockets could carry something secret, something private, or something deadly.

In the intervening century between suffragette suits and Susanna of Beverly Hills, the go-to bespoke suit-maker for women CEOs, presidential nominees, and television judges, much has changed for women and for women’s clothing. Not much has changed for women’s pockets, however. The easy explanation rests in the fact that as long as clothing designers make women’s clothes without pockets, women will have to buy purses. The ‘vaya-nya’ is nature's pocket," Ilana asserts on Broad City, but few women will be using theirs to hold their Metrocards and lipsticks.

The pocketless Democratic nominee. Photo: Robyn Beck/ Getty

So what’s the takeaway when we look at Hillary Clinton’s suit — for it’s not merely the white suffragette suit that makes Clinton the woman she is. The pantsuit is Hillary’s brand; it’s on t-shirts; it’s on her Instagram; it’s even the name that Hillary’s coder gave her website. Clinton’s choice of pantsuit is nothing new; just as she has been keeping hot sauce in her bag (swag) since the 1990s, so too has she been wearing pantsuits. These suits have tended to tonality, a slow unfolding of jewel-like blues and reds, of succulent berries and luscious mango, of desert greens and stoic greys. But they are also united by a near pocketlessness.

Proper as a prelate, Clinton’s suits could not be more respectable. They are the answer to what women can wear to convey relatable power. Seamless and sealed, these suits present Clinton’s body like a saint’s. Nothing goes into the suits, nothing comes out. There is nothing to hide in Clinton’s pantsuit, for there is no place to hide it. Whether voters understand the history of this message is something else altogether.

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