Where Have All The Pockets Gone In Women’s Clothing?

In the 18th Century pockets on women's clothes were kind of a big deal. So where have they all gone? Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo

Where Have All The Pockets Gone In Women's Clothing?

by Tara Pilkington |
Published on

In my quest to become a fully functioning adult, I’ve started moving away from my standard uniform of skinny jeans and started buying proper, grown-up trousers.

And in my quest for the perfect pair (who knew there were so many styles, paper bag waist? Peg?) I came across one pair on particular that I fell hard for. A pair of tapered peg trousers that truly stole my heart.


Tapered leg trousers, £28, ASOS

Why? Because as well as being the most comfortable trouser in the world, they also have surprise pockets (surprise because I had no idea they were there when I ordered my beloved trousers online). And they’re big. Big ol’ pockets I can actually fit things in – like my phone, and a card holder, and a lipstick. Proper pockets.

But the real source of my excitement comes from the fact that these marvels of design and comfort prove that it is possible for women’s clothes to have pockets without ruining the way they look. A decent pocket doesn’t have to ‘ruin the line’ – the excuse that’s so often bandied about for the lack of proper pocketry in women’s clothing. And even if it does, we’ve sent man to the moon, surely we can find a solution for this particular everyday conundrum.

At work, I can’t carry my bag around with me all day (and more to the point, I don’t want to), and more often than not, I can barely fit my phone, cards and keys (i.e. the essentials) in my trouser pockets. And if I’m wearing a skirt or dress? I just give up and carry all my worldly possessions in my sweaty palms all day. Needless to say, my male colleagues don’t have this problem, because their pockets are all designed with a practical function in mind.

So what’s the deal with pockets? Is it a massive gendered conspiracy designed to keep us IN OUR PLACE (i.e. with early onset sciatica after years of carrying a bag on one shoulder), or is it really the case that no-one can think of a decent design solution for women’s pockets that doesn’t ‘ruin the line’ (ugh)? Or is it simply that no-one has considered the possibility that women’s clothes, however flouncy, girly, high fashion or skimpy, should also have a practical application?

Obviously the first thing I did was ask the internet.

If you ask google; 'Why do women’s clothes have smaller pockets then mens?' The immediate answer is; 'A large function of women's jeans is to make them appear slimmer. Excess fabric adds unnecessary padding and looseness, which is one of the reasons pockets are smaller. In addition, women generally carry most of their things in a purse/bag, unlike men who carry their things in their pockets. So women’s jeans' pockets are not as functionally essential as mens’

This answer isn’t particularly satisfying for about a million different reasons – for starters, it assumes I want to carry everything around in a bag with me. But if I could fit everything into my coat pocket and surrender my bags I would. Not all of the time of course, but if I’m just walking to my local Lidl to buy a cheese twist I hardly think I need to bring my huge tote with me.

So have women always been pocketless wonders? Not according to fashion historian Katy Werlin. ‘Women have had substantial pockets throughout various times in history - in fact, in the 18th century, women had much more pocket space than men,’ she tells The Debrief.

‘Women carried not only money but all sorts of other things in them, and when pockets were removed it was not to make women seem dainty or to advertise bags. In fact, in the 19th century when pockets were replaced by little bags (called reticules) it was slightly scandalous because pockets were considered intimate garments.’

And as well as having pockets back in the day, women’s relationships with their pockets were also surprisingly complex. In the 18th century women didn't have iPhones or credit cards (obvs), but they did keep a wide variety of things inside their pockets. In a time where people would often share bedrooms and live in extremely close quarters pockets were seen as sometimes the only private place for a woman to keep small personal possessions. Pockets were also a handy place for women to keep everyday items such as pincushions, scissors and pencils.

It didn’t end there – vanity items such as mirrors, combs and scent bottles were also found in women’s pockets. Charles Dickens fans might remember that Peggotty in David Copperfield kept cake in her pockets, while Marian in Tess of D’Urbervilles kept gin in hers.

Proper big, functional pockets disappeared in women’s clothing disappeared when designers started to prize sleekness over… well an ability to stash gin about your person. And once bags were firmly established as part of our wardrobes (with an eye-watering price tag to boot), the days of the big pocket were numbered.

So where do we go from here? Well, for one thing, winter is just around the corner - the one season where women’s pockets actually get a chance to prove themselves. Although our coats may not have secret inside pockets, often they do have pretty great outer ones. We all remember that great coat we had when we were younger that seemed to have magical TARDIS pockets don't we? I'm betting you that there's more coats like that out there waiting for us to find them.

I can’t speak for every woman out there, but for any designers out there listening – please can we have more pockets. Pockets on dresses, pockets on skirts and pockets on trousers. We’ll never fall out of love with bags entirely, and sure, there are always days when you don’t want a hulking pouch of possessions sticking out of your left hip. But on those days when you want to be able to walk around, hands free, unencumbered by a bag, knowing exactly where your phone, debit card and keys are at any given moment – a big, proper pocket is just about the most liberating thing there is.

Pockets, pockets, pockets...

Because lord knows, you can't get enough...

Skirt from Paul and Joe

Paul and Joe Sister Mimi Cat Pocket Skirt, £155, ASOS

Trousers from Weekday

Weekday trousers with oversized pockets, £50

Top from Whistles

Frieda zip-front dress, £130, Whistles

Top from Zara

Sweatshirt with pockets, £25.99, Zara

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Follow Tara on Twitter @TaraPilks

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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