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A Brief History of Pockets

Pockets are something that most people, well, most men, take for granted. They appear in almost all men’s pants, trousers, coats, jackets, shorts, and even shirts. Many women, on the other hand, are used to the feeling of disappointment when the newest pair of jeans is lacking this basic or has faux pockets. If you don’t know what a faux pocket is, it’s a seam, typically on women’s jeans, meant to look like a pocket but it's sewn shut. Even if they do have pockets they’re very likely too small for your hand let alone your phone, or heaven forbid, a wallet. In contrast, you probably have seen the excitement when a girl finds out her dress or skirt has pockets. This weird occurrence seems to be for absolutely no reason. However, if you take a closer look at the history of pockets you begin to see a correlation between the functionality of women’s pockets and the civil rights movement. Below is a brief history of women’s pockets and the civil rights breakthroughs and pitfalls that seem to line up perfectly.

Early 1500s and prior- Pockets were not around or at least not popular at the time. Most carried their belongings in small bags or purses.

Mid 1500s- Pockets started to emerge in men’s trousers. This was also when the renaissance reached England. Women’s dresses did not have pockets.

1500s-1820s- Pockets are still exclusively made for men.

1820s- It was unusual, however, some pockets began to appear on the inside of women's corsets. It was completely impractical as a woman would have to take off all her clothes to access the pocket. This seems to line up with the opening of the first female high schools. (1826, first American women’s public high schools in New York and Boston). This is also when the Lowell factory system, which relied mainly on unmarried female workers, reached its peak.

1843- At this point fashion historian C. Willet Cunnington estimates that pockets under or hidden by the skirts of a woman’s dress started appearing and became common. The 1840s is also when the industrial revolution was in full swing in both England and the United States. The 1840’s also marks the first women held women’s convention, Seneca Falls. At this point about 10% of women were employed. Pockets for women, although hard to get to were big enough to hold the things a woman would need.

1880s- Women’s fashion became more thin and tighter fitting meaning, while pockets were now accessible as they were less hidden by so many skirts, corsets, and hoop skirts, they also became incredibly small and almost unusable.

1914- You might recognise this year as when WWI began. This also happened to be when women’s pockets started to become practical. The position of the pockets became more comfortable. (Previously women's pockets tended to be on the hem of the waist line making putting almost anything in them uncomfortable). As World War 1 began and men were drafted or enlisted in the military the workforce started to dwindle and companies started to hire women to compensate for the loss of so much of the workforce. About 18% of women were employed in the US in 1900 by 1920 it rose to about 20% and by 1930 50% of single women were working. During this time period (WW1 and WW2 1914-1945) pockets for women were deep and accessible. They were necessary for working and so they were practical. The image to the right is the iconic poster of Rose the Riveter and her slogan, “We can do it!”. Because of the shortened labor supply women were, for the first time, allowed in almost any workplace, including as mechanics or plumbers. Many women took over their husbands’ farms during the wars. In 1920 women were given the right to vote in the US. By 1945 a quarter of married women were working.

1950- After WWII when the soldiers returned home, women were once again pushed out of the workplace and accordingly their pockets disappeared in favor of the 1950s swing dresses as pictured on the left. The ideal of the American housewife was becoming a popular idea and only about ⅓ (33%) or women were employed, almost a huge decline from the war time period. Pockets were uncommon and if there at all, small and impractical.

1960-1970s- When the hippie and civil rights movement started to pick up in the US, women began to wear pants and jeans with relatively large pockets. Women’s blazers and even dresses began to have functional pockets as well. During this time period the civil rights movement was extremely active and reached dozens of landmarks for civil rights and equality here are a few of the women’s rights accomplishments of the 60s and 70s: first birth control pill, Equal Pay Act, Civil Rights Act, federal law guarantees women can not be denied due to sex at public schools, Roe V. Wade.

1990s- Women’s pockets begin to become too small to actually fit anything again. Front pockets in jeans could barely fit your thumb and the back pockets may have fit a flip phone. By this time the civil rights movement had died off, although there were a few isolated achievements for civil rights in the 90s.

2000-today- Women’s pockets are still incredibly small or non-existent. Only about 10% of women’s pant pockets can fit their hand and only 40% can fit an iPhone. On average mens’ pockets are 3 inches deeper.

If you want to see the average women’s pocket compared to the average men’s pocket and how they fit certain objects check out this link.

Bo Miller


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