The History of Women's Pockets

Everyone who wears women’s clothing knows: our pockets suck. If you’ve ever tried to stash your phone while hiking or running, chances are you’ve been more than slightly annoyed with the lack of real estate that our pants, shorts, and dresses generally afford. Even the most functional pants—those that advertise hip and thigh cargo pockets and hidden zippered compartments—typically fail to comfortably provide the kind of pocket space that comes standard on men’s clothing.

But then I dug into the history of how we got to where we are today. And I was shocked. Not only did women’s pockets start out much bigger than they are now, they also started out more spacious than what men’s clothing had to offer. So where did things go wrong? How did our hiking, climbing, and biking apparel end up with such subpar storage?

These pockets were huge; they were often large enough to carry snacks like oranges and apples. They were also beautiful and personalized with embroidery and embellishments, much like purses are today. Women would make their own pockets or make them as gifts to give to friends. And each woman had her own system for organizing small items inside her pockets.

In the beginning of the book, the authors share a 1725 classified ad from a London newspaper that offers a reward for the return of a pair of lost or stolen pockets. They contained the following items: a silver purse, a pair of gloves, a ring, a toothpick case, a handkerchief, a key, and a thimble.

Over time women’s pockets changed with evolving fashion. As dresses became more formfitting, it became harder to conceal bulky pockets underneath them. Toward the end of the 1700s, women’s storage options shifted from pockets to reticules or small purses. This is because pockets would ruin the silhouette of the dress, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, an art and design museum in London. By the 19th century, women’s clothing had started to integrate pockets that were built into their garments, much like today. 

Pants pockets ultimately suffered the same fate: when women started wearing pants more regularly, around World War II, the focus was initially on their function, so pockets were large and practical. But again, as fashion evolved and designs slimmed, pockets messed with the silhouettes and started to shrink and disappear.

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