Of Pockets and Patriarchy

or, Keep your friends close and your car keys closer

Published November 18, 2023

Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 hit “Hand in My Pocket” was a song about overcoming the difficulties of life, and – intentionally or not – women’s rights. Don’t worry, we’ll circle back to that. First, a history.

In medieval times, men and women carried around simple little bags called “purses” or “pokes” without any gender association (this lives on in the expression “pig in a poke,” and in the word “pouch”). It was in the 17th century that small pouches were first sewn into (men’s) clothing to act as the first pockets (“poke-ette”). Women were limited to detachable pouches that tied on under the clothes, accessible through side openings in the layers of inner and outer fabric. If that already sounds less handy than a pocket… well, it was. And the stage was set for centuries of this crap.

In 1800s Britain, pockets became standard in men’s trousers, coats, and vests. The men of course needed to carry all kinds of “important” things on their person such as a pocket-knife, pocket watch, and pocket book. Meanwhile, women did need to carry some things like toiletries and dance cards for the ball so for this they would use tiny, fashionable handbags called reticules. These small bags were actually status symbols, indicating that their man handled their finances and they lived an easy life of leisure. Victorians, right?

In 1894, a woman writing to Harper’s Bazaar sent a shot across the bow. “A boy’s pockets are his certificate of empire,” she wrote. “All through life he will carry his sceptre of dominion by right of his pockets.” And she brought receipts: “My husband has, by actual count, fourteen available pockets in the costume in which he faces the daily world. I frequently am minus even one.” Alas, it wasn’t quite the world-changing mic-drop moment she might have hoped for.

Within a decade or two, though, women’s suffragists started to wear pockets. (A 1910 New York Times article even bore the headline, “Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit.”) And in the ‘30s, as androgynous-styled stars such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich prompted Women’s Wear Daily to ask, “Will Women Wear Trousers?,” Levi’s developed the first blue jeans for women, specifically marketed to the niche group of American cowgirls.

On the men’s side, jeans gained more pop-culture cachet through the likes of James Dean and Elvis, and by the ‘60s those pocket-heavy pants were the clothing items of choice during the civil rights movement. As that intersected with the second wave of feminism, working women were encouraged to better fit into a man’s world by dressing in the three “P’s”: pants, pinstripes, and pockets. 

The following decades, up to today, were a blur of fashionable (and useful!) pantsuits, blazers, jeans, and even feminine dresses with pockets. Nowadays, there are startups that specialize in pocket-inclusive womenswear. Most of the time they’re utilitarian, but sometimes fake pockets are added for “fashion” reasons (there is actually a movement against it). And as far as the women’s-pocket movement has come, a new study shows that when present at all, they’re still about half the size of men’s pockets.

So, could Alanis fit a hand in there? Hard to say, but on her quintillion-selling debut album Jagged Little Pill – in between tearing into Dave Coulier for abusing her youthful innocence, and calling out the record exec who “took a good hard look at my ass and then played golf for a while” – she took a breather to tell us, “I have one hand in my pocket, and the other one is givin’ a peace sign.”

It must have felt good.

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