Pockets are a small but important component of western clothing. Despite their deceptive obscurity and utilitarian nature, pockets are sensitive to fashion changes and they can reveal a wealth of social and cultural information. Pockets are an alternative or supplement to bags, purses, and pouches in the carrying and securing of portable personal possessions, and historically it is often illuminating to consider them together. There has been a close gender-specific association between pockets and the bodily gestures and posture they facilitate. In the period before mass-produced clothing, first for men and then for women, there was scope for individual customers, or their tailors and dressmakers, to choose where pockets should be placed, and though there were common preferences and styles, pockets were by no means uniform; in the early twenty-first century, the same applies in expensive bespoke clothing. There has always been a difference in the number and position of pockets customarily provided for men, women, and children.
Pockets in Men's Dress
For men, the most prominent pockets are those on the outside of their coats. In the seventeenth century, they had been close to the lower edge and then moved higher. In the eighteenth century, like pockets in waistcoats, they became marked out by flaps becoming deeper and often decorative, sometimes lavishly so in keeping with the color and embellishment of fashionable garments. The great coat, which was common before the railway age, provided a capacious range of pockets suitable for the needs of male travelers. Its demise may have contributed to the widespread adoption of the briefcase in the twentieth century by businessmen and commuters. In the voluminous trunk hose worn by men with doublets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, very large pockets could be accessed from the side. Pockets in later styles of breeches and trousers have been situated in the side seams, but also at the back and front.
Smaller pockets, such as those for coins or hanging watches, were less visible, for example placed in the front of the waistband of breeches; chamois leather was sometimes used as lining. Watches became small enough at the start of the seventeenth century to be concealed in pockets made for the purpose. These remained common until the wristwatch became popular in the twentieth century. The inside top pocket is commonly found in many male garments past and present. Men's garments utilized integrated pockets and positioned them to achieve balance across the body generally before women's garments did so. The number of pockets for men has been substantial. Extant historical breeches and trousers show evidence of the cycle of patching made necessary by wear and tear caused to pocket linings by coins and keys, a problem that has continued.
"…because I have no safer a store-house, these pockets do serve me for a roome to lay up my goods in, and though it be a straight prison, yet it is a store-house big enough for them, for I have many things more of value yet within…" (Bulwer, p. 77).
Pockets in Women's Dress
Women's clothing was slower to adopt the integral pockets widely used by men. The old-established custom of hanging small utensils and tools from the belt has never entirely ceased. It enjoyed a renaissance amongst women in the second half of the nineteenth century when there was a vogue for antique-looking chatelaines. Throughout the eighteenth century, women commonly had slits in the sides of the skirts of their gowns and informal jackets to gain access to tie-on or hanging pockets worn beneath. These large pockets were made in pairs or singly, usually with vertical slit openings and worn on a tape around the waist, independent of the garments worn over them, and consisted of linen, cotton, silk, or materials recycled from older furnishings or patchwork. In the eighteenth century these were also often beautifully embroidered, but this practice seems to have ceased in the nineteenth century. Integral pockets then became more popular; bags and reticules of various kinds supplemented capacity for carrying small personal possessions, but tie-on pockets continued in use throughout the nineteenth century, when later they were often associated with children, or of rural or working-class women, and they disappeared altogether by the 1920s.
Integral pockets were distributed in various places in formal and informal dresses and suits, between skirt gores, even in folds over the bustle drapes. Patch pockets have been prominent on aprons, both the decorative ones fashionable amongst women of leisure in the eighteenth century, and the utilitarian aprons found in many situations throughout the period. In the twentieth century, the use of trousers and jeans by women has provided them with more pockets, but rarely have women's coats or jackets been made with the useful inside pocket so typical of menswear. In periods of history where women and girls have had little or no domestic privacy or financial independence, pockets (as well as stays) have provided them with one of the few available forms of security and privacy for letters, money, or other small possessions.
Social and Cultural Factors
Both men and women have faced the conflict of interest inherent in retaining fashionable, smooth outlines to their garments whilst carrying things in their pockets. Changes in the type and number of pockets for both sexes derive both from fashion and from the necessity to accommodate different kinds of things, ranging from a woman's snuffbox of the eighteenth century to car keys in more recent times. These goods are expressive of gender roles and social class. However, despite the wide range of types of pockets available, they have not been entirely effective for men or women. There have been frequent complaints over the last three centuries about their inadequacy or inaccessibility and, paradoxically, court records and newspapers over this time show the frequency with which pickpockets and pocket snatchers found them only too accessible. Tie-on pockets were sometimes lost, a loss suffered by Lucy Locket and described in a nursery rhyme:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it,
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it. (Opie, p. 279)
"At the present time men and women employ quite different systems, men carrying what is needful in their pockets, women in bags which are not attached in any way to their persons, but carried loosely in their hands. Both systems have serious disadvantages" (Flügel, p. 186).
Some small possessions have generated their own carrying devices worn separately, such as holsters for small arms, specialist aprons to carry small tools for skilled trades, and binocular cases. Latterly conventional pockets have been to some extent superseded by small bags, based on hiking gear, worn around the waist or on the back by both sexes, but innovation in pockets still continues. They are seen sited in unconventional positions, sometimes borrowed from combat clothing or used to accommodate new urban lifestyles and technological innovations such as mobile phones and computer games. This suggests that there is sufficient need for pockets not only to continue in use, but also to attract inventive new solutions.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen's Dresses and Their Construction c. 1660–1860. London: Macmillan, 1977.
——. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560–1620. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Baumgarten, Linda, and John Watson. Costume Close-up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750–1790, Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation with Quite Specific Media Group, 1999.
Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail, 1730–1930. London: Harrap, 1968.
Bulwer, John. Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform'd or The Artificial Changling. London: Printed by W. Hunt, 1653.
Burman, Barbara. "Pocketing the Difference: Pockets and Gender in Nineteenth-Century Britain." In Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective. Edited by Barbara Burman and Carole Turbin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.
Flügel, J. C. The Psychology of Clothes New York: International Universities Press, 1969 (first published 1930), p. 186.
Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Claredon Press.