Pockets: Articles of Interest #3

Womenswear is littered with fake pockets that don’t open, or shallow pockets that can hardly hold more than a paperclip. If women’s clothes have pockets at all, they are often smaller and just fit less than men’s pockets do. And when we talk about pockets, we are talking about who has access to the tools they need. Who can walk through the world comfortably and securely.

Articles of Interest is a show about what we wear; a six-part series within 99% Invisible, looking at clothingEpisodes will be released on Tuesdays and Fridays from September 25th through October 12th.

For Pockets, Avery Trufelman spoke with her college friend Piers Gelly; Hannah Carlson, lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design; Clarissa Esguerra, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and dress historian Barbara Burman.


Production & Music

Articles of Interest was created by Avery Trufelman; this episode was edited by Katie Mingle and Joe Rosenberg; Sasami Ashworth wrote the theme songs for the show; Rhae Royal made the rest of the music; Graham Hacia did the fact checking; Sharif Youssef did the mix; photography by Matty Lynn Barnes; Roman Mars is the executive producer.

Special thanks to Piers Gelly for raising this topic on his podcast Cellar Door, as well as to Delaney Hall, Emmett Fitzgerald, Vivian Le, Kurt Kohlstedt and the rest of the 99pi team.

    1. drlandsnark

      What I came here to comment. The expert at the museum needs to stop telling people this unless it can be backed up with references to the use at the time. (Which is possible, regardless of the etymology of the words themselves–we often use words that sound similar, or adopt one term into common usage partly because it sounds like another.)

      “Ridicule,” according to my dictionary, stems from the Latin root for laughing.

  1. This was an excellent episode and so far a great series. I hope y’all find a reason, or way, to make more than six Articles of Interest.

  2. Nick K

    What song was at the end? With the lyrics

    “A pocket

    A piece of paper

    words from yesterday”

    Thank you

  3. Brian Dicey

    There’s a clip of haunting & beautiful music in the AOI episodes…. I want to hear more!
    The lyric goes something like, “a pocket, a paper, a piece of yesterday…”
    Who’s the artist? Didn’t have any luck searching the names listed in the credits.

  4. Jacob Hitt

    Hi. Was the song used at the end of the episode an original production? Might be my mind playing tricks on me but it sounds very familiar.

  5. Rob

    I’m really enjoying this series: the episodes are short and snappy, entertaining and informative. But this is a series where some visuals would be really helpful – it seems a shame that you don’t have full accompanying blog posts as you do with normal 99PI episodes.

  6. In The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (via Toad, who has dressed as a washerwoman to break out of prison) has a great little summation of the importance of pockets to social standing in 1908:

    He gave the name of the station that he knew to be nearest to the village of which Toad Hall was the principal feature, and mechanically put his fingers, in search of the necessary money, where his waistcoat pocket should have been. But here the cotton gown, which had nobly stood by him so far, and which he had basely forgotten, intervened, and frustrated his efforts. In a sort of nightmare he struggled with the strange uncanny thing that seemed to hold his hands, turn all muscular strivings to water, and laugh at him all the time; while other travellers, forming up in a line behind, waited with impatience, making suggestions of more or less value and comments of more or less stringency and point. At last—somehow—he never rightly understood how—he burst the barriers, attained the goal, arrived at where all waistcoat pockets are eternally situated, and found—not only no money, but no pocket to hold it, and no waistcoat to hold the pocket!

    To his horror he recollected that he had left both coat and waistcoat behind him in his cell, and with them his pocket-book, money, keys, watch, matches, pencil-case—all that makes life worth living, all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one-pocketed or no-pocketed productions that hop or trip about permissively, unequipped for the real contest.

  7. corky

    I am loving this series! This one hits on one of my pet peeves.
    as a female who will not carry a purse, I am constantly trying to find jeans, pants, and shorts with pockets big enough to carry a wallet, keys and cell phone. This drives me crazy. One brand of jeans had these ridiculously small front pockets that would not hold anything. The explanation on the website was that the pockets were designed to be more flattering! But why put pockets at all if they won’t hold anything!

  8. Dana

    You’re killing me with a MAJOR missing piece – purses are AMAZING and men aren’t allowed to carry them. I have loved being able to drag my purse around with me since I was a kid. I am like a turtle that wants to drag my house everywhere. Which will not fit in any pocket, any gendered clothing.

    Men are ALWAYS handing me their wallets and phones to carry because their pants are too tight for our giant phones these days anyway. I am not saying there aren’t some issues and the historical stuff is great context, but give me my mega bag I drag everywhere, full of food and water bottles, eyeglass wipes, and pocketknife.

    Shout out to my husband who has more than once been teased by stangers for carrying it for me when my hands were full. It’s another type of misogyny, of course, people hate women so much that they mock a man for taking on any aspect of womenhood, but also, he doesn’t get sunburnt because I always have sunscreen.

    1. Alysia

      Yeah – I’m not about to cry for men in this situation. Tons of men carry bags – they just aren’t called purses, they’re called backpacks, briefcases, tablet bags, etc. I don’t know where you live, but I see it every day all the time. Interestingly, I manage to get away without a bag or purse most of the time. All I really need is my wallet (which happens to be a men’s wallet, btw), my keys, and *maybe* my phone. I *hate* carrying a bag as I prefer to have my hands free.

  9. Dan

    Another comment looking for more info on that song. From the credits I think it’s by Sasami Ashworth but I can’t find this tune on her SoundCloud or any other channel. Is it a full-length track, and if so where can we hear/buy it?

  10. Thank you for this episode! While I have recently found and am frequently patronizing a new-to-me purveyor of dresses-with-useful-pockets, the lack of a place to put things for most of my life has always been frustrating. My 1.5 to daughter was wearing her older brother’s hand me down pants today and was so delighted with the pockets; none from her girl cousins have any.

    Once, a female colleague and I were in the service corridor of our labs trying to fix a power supply when our Nobel-Laureate boss came by to chat and offer his advice. He started saying how he has always believed every experimental physicist should have a pocket knife with them (we needed a small screwdriver at that moment.). It was summer, and I stood up to show him the fake pockets on my Capri pants and explained a little of what it was to operate as a woman in this world. He was (rightfully) stunned and had never considered such a thing before.

  11. I wondered if you were going to get around to Rudofsky sooner or later. My copy of “Are Clothes Modern?” even has provenance — it’s Elia Kazan’s copy.

  12. What’s also interesting to me (sorry these are coming in bits and pieces) is how pockets can interact with other objects.

    Example: Breast pockets and 8″x10″ paper. Fold a letter in thirds, like you would for an envelope. Now fold it in half the opposite way. It fits a breast pocket almost perfectly. Tough for me to believe that isn’t by design.

  13. Peter Willis

    I felt disappointed by this report. It ignores the modern aspect of pockets that I found out after googling for a half hour.

    Men still have useless pockets. The “coin pocket” in jeans is actually for a pocketwatch. So why do we still have it? It’s not because fashion simply couldn’t do without it – it’s because we found another utility for it, namely, holding coins. If it had no utility, it would have been faded out, since mostly only jeans had the pocket. Now even regular trousers have a small inner cloth pocket that serves much the same modern function. And this is adaptation to market forces is what causes women’s clothes to not have pockets.

    Women’s pockets are nonexistent because women’s fashion is intense. Go into any clothing store (I notice it especially in thrift stores) and you will notice there is between 2 and 10 times more clothing for women than men. This isn’t because women need more clothes, like they’re constantly falling apart, or because they’re losing their clothes all over the place. It’s because the women’s clothing fashion industry responds to a demand for constantly new and different articles of clothing. Our culture reinforces the idea that women must always be fashionable and attractive, and if a woman isn’t buying the newest fashions, she isn’t fashionable. That’s been true for a long time, but industrialization has lowered the cost of new fashions significantly, and consumers no longer focus as much on quality. The result is a lot more affordable, fashionable clothes.

    If you talk to women’s clothing designers today, they _want_ to put pockets in their clothes, but they are often forced to remove them. Why? One reason is cost. Because designers have to churn out new articles all the time, they fight a very narrow window between the cost to produce clothes, and the consumer’s available money to buy new clothes. Often, the only way to churn out a new clothing line every season is to reduce the cost of production – namely, spending less on material and speeding up production. Cut out the pockets and you save on materials and production costs, and thus save money.

    Another common reason is that it is indeed hard to relocate a pocket on a garment and not make it look ridiculous. Imagine a big fat pocket on your calf, or the front of your thigh, or the back. Or even on a dress, putting the pocket at or above the hip. Now put something inside it. Now I have either thick hips, or these weird lumps all over my body. This is not the aesthetic most women are looking for. Not only is it awkward to relocate pockets, it makes the clothing look weird. So you can try to use the same old front-thigh-hidden pocket, but if it makes the clothing hang weird on the body, or lumps in it break up the silhouette, it’s no longer fashionable or attractive, which kills its marketability. An actual women’s clothing designer reports here that women complain about similar issues when pockets are added: https://www.quora.com/Why-do-womens-clothes-seem-to-lack-pockets-Is-this-really-an-effort-to-make-women-buy-handbags

    To reintroduce pockets, women’s fashion needs to do three things: 1) embrace less tight-fitting clothes, 2) re-introduce pockets through consumer demand, and 3) produce less clothing lines less frequently. It seems like the third thing is actually what’s holding back pocket introduction more than 1 and 2.

  14. Erin

    Love the series, and especially the all-important issue of POCKETS! I’m sure a study can or has been done of pockets across literature (see Wendy’s offer to make pockets for the Lost Boys in Neverland…), but this passage in particular came to mind:

    Often, people want to say that things are ‘for men’ or ‘for women,’ but I think that many of these items just share the property that they can or can’t fit into the shitty pockets women get. Of course, if girls were less focused on their appearance, maybe they would wear carpenter’s pants and carry whatever they wanted. Who is to say? It is inarguable, though, whomever’s fault it is, that having small pockets is terrible.
    ~Jesse Ball, “How to Set a Fire and Why”

    [Also, second the error on “reticule,” which comes from the Latin and refers to a “netlike” shape/structure. Perhaps this misinterpretation with “ridicule” was a false-cognate of its time…?]

  15. Dave Warda

    Loved this episode on pockets on my drive into work this morning. As a man, I have always loved pockets. All my favourite pants or jackets always have unique or comfortable pockets. This episode made me think differently about how pockets have shaped my thoughts about clothing and my identity. It also triggered a memory of when as a teenager in the 1980s, it was my choice to buy a pair of winter boots with a pocket just above the ankle. So unique, so foolish, yet I loved them. (I think they were Kangaroo boots…)

  16. Josie Beller

    People who say women must not buy clothing with pockets, or more women’s clothing would have pockets, are ignoring the catch-22 exemplified by the police uniform shop. Women who actually demand pockets can only get them by buying men’s clothing, therefore those sales which would go to women’s clothing with pockets if such things were available, end up being sales of “men’s” clothing to women, and thus they are counted as sales of men’s clothing (thus assumed to be sales to men), adding to the assumption that men buy clothes with pockets and women buy clothing without pockets.

    The idea that pockets ruin the line of a woman’s clothing ignore the fact that over half the population is a size 14 or larger, aka “plus-size”, and thus can’t wear the latest fashion anyway! The most fashionable clothes are designed for skinny little models, and then are scaled up without adequately changing the style to suit the differences that curves make in how clothing hangs on the body. Plus-sized fashions, where they exist, are still designed for women who male designers find appealing — that is, women who have curvy butts and hips, but are compensated with extra-large busts as well. (They don’t even *make* bras in, say, 46B or 48A, so plus-size women who don’t get that compensation are forced to get a 36C and add a couple of extenders to the back in order to get the smaller cup size and larger band.) Most plus-size women have very little hope of finding flattering styles of clothing anyway, so would gladly accept the trade-off of having pockets! And again, they often wind up choosing men’s clothing, which also isn’t designed to flatter their shape but at least it has pockets….

    A quick check shows that “pocketsforwomen.com”redirects to a sculptor’s website, but the URL “womenspockets.com” is available. Is there anyone out there up for the challenge of designing jeans, shorts, etc. with pockets in them???

  17. Sue

    This is a great episode in a fascinating series. I can’t wait to hear more from Avery Truffleman.

    I would like to point out that the disappearance of pockets in women’s jeans and casual pants is a fairly recent thing in my experience. I’m a baby-boomer and I am certain that for most of my life I had perfectly adequate pockets in my jeans. They were totally on par with the pockets of men’s jeans. I always had enough space for money, coins, small pocket knife, keys. And then… without explanation… pockets started to shrink. It happened concurrently with the influx of “mid-rise” and “skinny” jeans. When was that… about 2006 maybe? The dominance of that fashion wave soon obliterated most other cuts of pants, and the elimination of pockets became universal. It was insidious. At first, I noticed that pockets in my new jeans had suddenly become about half the depth I was used to. I remember thinking I must have purchased a pair of defective jeans… but then it spread like a malignancy, and within a year I could no longer find pants with true, useable pockets. And this has now been the practice so long that younger generations think it has ever been so. It has not.

    I believe that pockets will soon make a comeback, but they will be an additional “feature” that will come with an extra cost. Mark my words.

  18. IdEx

    Peter Willis and Josie Beller bring up good points for why there are differences in pocket sizes for different demographics, which is why I will concentrate on something else. Namely, pockets as the “perfect metaphor of privilege”.

    Privilege cannot be based on a choice. If it was then everyone without the privilege would simply choose to have it and it would not be a privilege anymore.

    It is unfortunate that now-a-days differences in outcome are more likely to be seen as a sign of privilege rather than choice. Is it down to unfair privilege when someone is doing better than you are? No, it is probably down to their own choices (personal responsibility) and/or their parents choices (luck of the draw).

    In this case, women as adults can choose to buy and wear men’s clothes, without social stigma, based solely on their personal priorities: look attractive, be practical, or anything else really.

    Men, on the other hand, cannot wear women’s clothing without raising many an eyebrow. Of course, most men (heterosexual, 95-99% of the population), probably wouldn’t want to yet the point stands.

    It is interesting to realize that most clothes are not actually gendered. Jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, socks, shorts, jackets, most shoes, etc, can be worn by both genders without social issues. Meanwhile, traditionally, there are loads of women’s clothes (skirts, miniskirts, certain tops, dresses, revealing clothing of many types) and not that many men’s clothes (suit with tie, smock, only formal wear it seems). I might be wrong, not an expert in clothes.

    Well, this episode made me think of things; that’s always welcome.

    1. Hope G.

      I sew. There’s nothing more comfortable than clothes that fit you perfectly, as your mobility isn’t restricted and you don’t have excess fabric getting in the way of your work. Pants and shirts are drafted different to male and female bodies, not only because of skeletal differences but because women’s bodies carry fat differently in the butt and thighs, etc… Yes, some women with more androgynous figures can get away with wearing men’s skinny jeans compromising of part elastic but majority can’t. Even shopping in the women’s section, it’s difficult to find fitting pants. This is why I resorted to learning to draft my own patterns and sew my own clothes.

      When you get clothes tailored, you’re limited by cuts. So if you have a curvy figure, you’re going to be sacrificing something else when you adjust the fit. For example, taking in the waist on an existing pair of high waisted pants means the back of the waist will be lowered, so if you find waist high cuts to be most comfortable, you’re going to lose that to take in the waist. I’m explaining this so that you understand why it’s not feasible for women to shop for men’s pants just for the pockets. Either way, they’ll be sacrificing something in the comfort of the fit just for the pocket when they go get them tailored.

      For women, it would be more feasible to shop for the best fitting women’s garment they can find and go to a tailor to get them to add a pocket or extend the the pocket depth.

  19. VDubs

    My brother told me about this episode, and he was right I did love it. But, I have a different take than most of the comments I’ve read so far.

    I fall in the both reticule (purse)/pockets camp. I like my purse when I’m going out, but having generous pockets especially around the house or when going clubbing is also handy.

    My solutions:
    1. For Clubbing – Wrist or Ankle Wallet (there is a seller on Etsy who makes BEAUTIFUL leather wrist wallets that can fit, a small key, a couple of cards, & some money). My smartwatch has LTE, so with my wrist wallet I’m all set. No pockets required.
    2. Around the House – I live my life in leggings around the house, so I wear a running belt with pockets big enough for my iPhone Xr, headphones or Bluetooth, candy or chapstick (I have a Hot Tamales problem), & another phone if I wanted. I got the idea to start wearing one of these after listening to this podcast. This to me is a modern take on the “pocket as a separate garment”. This thing will be fantastic for travel!
    3. Work/Errands – I work in an office and wear a “work-purse”. I have a couple of small men’s crossbody bags (they look like small camera bags) that hold my phone, some money, my work ID, wallet, and keys. I put one on when I get to work and wear it all day. For me, it’s more comfortable and organized than distributing everything to different pockets. I never get locked out of the building because I forgot my badge or my keys. I’ve also always got my keys, so can get home in case of an emergency evacuation. The work-purse has become my full-time purse. I can grab it a put it on, on the way out of the door. Bonus, it has a belt loop on the back. So, if I find myself doing any sort of heavy lifting, I can wear it on my waist.

    I loved this podcast episode. It really opened my eyes to the usefulness of pockets and the choices women have when it comes to what we wear and how we store the stuff with which we move about the world (taking inspiration from your piece here). I cannot wait to listen to the other episodes in this series.

  20. Chrissi

    I love the series, but I’m missing the accompanying pictures and descriptions that one usually finds with the 99pi stories. Like Rudolfskis pocket and button chart or the reticules that you described so nicely. So that I can just drop in there while listening when I’m curious what the things really look like or look up something I half remember afterwards
    Maybe in future episodes? :)

  21. Jerry Friend

    24 pockets is still a thing – check put a company called scottevest out of Idaho….. insane amount of pockets – and clothes for ladies also – however i can’t help but notice less pockets/smaller pockets on the ladies apparel….. hmmmmm

    Jerry from Arkansas

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