Pockets and the fight for the female body

By Orlaith Darling| 03 September 2019

Women's jeans

Women’s Pockets

I have dropped my phone down the toilet several times. Why? The pockets in women’s clothing. I own jeans with pockets into which I can barely fit my hand. I own jeans which have the cruel illusion of pockets stitched into the fabric. It is a fairly well-known fact that, as one writer puts it, ‘mid-range fashion is a male dominated business, driven not by form and function, but by design and how fabric best drapes the body.’ [1]

Simply put, women’s bodies are aesthetic, money-making shapes, not living and breathing forms which have to operate in the world. 85% of fashion graduates are women, yet only 14% of leading women’s wear brands are run by women and only 40% of designers in New York, London, Paris and Milan’s 2017 fashion weeks were women. [2][3] Pockets are just one, fairly trivial, example of how an industry targeted at women is curated by men – women’s bodies, from the western women wearing clothes to the predominantly eastern women who produce them, are dictated to by a patriarchal cabal.

It is no secret that women’s bodies are historically and culturally, politically and societally contested sites. Many gender theorists (such as Mary Russo and Margrit Shildrick) have written at length about the so-called ‘excessive’ female body. Under Enlightenment principles, essentialised male rationality was pitched against naturalised female hysteria; female ‘excess’ and ‘leakiness’ was galvanised by women’s association with nature and the body versus men’s with culture and reason. Throughout western philosophy, women were seen as naturally more immoral than men due to their bodily porousness. In many ways, fashion copperfastened this association – from the flamboyant wigs of the Enlightenment (Fig. 1) to the birth of the Victorian crinoline skirt (Fig. 2), clothing could be seen as reflecting women’s bodily excessiveness and incapacity for reason, thereby justifying women’s oppression.

Figure 1

Figure 2

If historical examples such as the corset illustrate clearly how fashion impacted on women’s ability to participate in society on a practical level, women’s fashion throughout the twentieth century is similarly underpinned by patriarchal ideologies. For instance, following the flux of war and women’s wartime participation in the workforce, the hourglass childbearing figure, full tea skirts and the floral domesticity of 1950s fashion corresponded to state focus on the nuclear family and the reassertion of traditional gender roles (Fig. 3). In the next decade, smooth, streamlined female clothes offered a ‘new’ image of women – the 1960s A-line silhouette, for instance, was utterly impractical in many ways, but corresponded to advances in women’s liberation which allowed women to operate, in some ways, like men (Fig. 4).



As women moved into the public sphere, entering boardrooms and politics, their bodies must be repackaged as non-excessive, non-porous and impenetrable. However, minimalist clothes also reflect a backlash against women’s economic and social advancement. If fussy, ‘excessive’ fashions restrict women’s movement in the world, minimalist clothing  reduces the space afforded to the female body. As women assert themselves on the world, the imperative to appear vulnerable, weak and small is compounded, manifesting in the ‘heroin chic’ of the nineties (Fig. 5), the unobtrusive outline of bodycon in the 2000s and, now, skinny jeans with no pockets.

Figure 5

Here, marketing offers a method by which female advances can be recouped by patriarchy. Universal trends such as skinny jeans supposedly unite male and female fashion – everyone wears jeans – but, crucially, the sleekness of women’s jeans is prioritised over practicality. Without pockets, women become the perfect target customers for handbags.  Purporting to offer women space in which to store the things indispensable for the conducting of their daily lives – namely, more consumer commodities like sunglasses, lipsticks, large purses and so on – capitalism in fact introduces the idea that the female body is not enough. While the male body is self-sufficient, smoothly navigating the world in well-tailored suits, the female body is inadequate without the add-ons marketed by patriarchal capitalism. As such, the handbag thus comes to be a symbolic dumping-ground for market ideologies. Without the patriarchal capitalism symbolised by the handbag, women’s pocketlessness reflects the reactionary backlash against feminism which sees women as undeserving of their own (economic) possessions. Simply put, women cannot operate on equal terms to men because their clothes do not allow it without the addition of male-designed handbags.

However, women’s bodies are also sites of resistance. From the 17th century makeshift petticoat-pocket, to Victorian dress patterns including instructions for sewing pockets, to the first women to wear men’s trousers, women resisted cultural expectations, instead espousing utility.[4] Similarly, the rise of the bum-bag, the increasing replacement of the handbag with the backpack, and the reclamation of overalls and boiler-suits, arguably challenge the idea that carriers for women must be ‘girly’ and extra. The ‘marsupial look’ and the supplementing of women’s clothes with historically ‘unfashionable’, functional appends perhaps indicates women operating on their own terms (Fig. 6).

Figure 6

However, issues remain. The pocketlessness of women’s clothing means that women are used as the culture bearers of patriarchal capitalism through the resultant requirement that they purchase consumer add-ons such as handbags. Handbags symbolically continue the association between womanhood and ‘excess’ through linking women to commodity culture and making the female body a site on which capitalist consumption is played out. In this sense, the streamlined look given to women by non-bulky skinny jeans could be said to react against the ‘excess’ historically attributed to femininity, but this same ‘excess’ nonetheless crops up in new guises. Therefore, pockets, pocketlessness and the politics of design begs the question of how clothes can be worn by women and for women when they are designed by men and serve to uphold patriarchal ideas of the female body.

About Orlaith:

Orlaith is a Master’s student on the MSc. ‘Literature and Modernity: 1900 – Present’ programme at the University of Edinburgh. She is mainly interested in gender studies, women’s writing and contemporary politics, and will begin a PhD in Trinity College Dublin in September 2019 on recent Irish women’s short fiction.

Works Cited:

[1]  Basu, Tanya. ‘The Gender Politics of Pockets’, The Atlantic. 30/09/2014.
[2] Curtis, Scarlett. ‘2: Saoirse Ronan and Sinéad Burke’, Feminists Wear Pink Podcast. 13/06/2019.
[3] Pike, Helena. ‘Female Fashion Designers are still in the minority’, Business of Fashion. 09/09/2016.
[4] Lubitz, Rachel. ‘The Weird, Complicated, Sexist History of Pockets’, Mic. 19/02/2016.  

Image sources:

Women’s Pockets image sourced from The Collab.
Fig 1 sourced from demodecouture.com.
Fig 2 sourced from fiveminutehistory.com.
Fig 3 sourced from vintagedancer.com.
Fig 4 sourced from flikr.com.
Fig 5 sourced from thefashionatlas.com.
Fig 6 sourced from shuttershock.com.

Edited by Eva Dieteren and Ailish Woollett.

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