PG: I had never worn a dress before. I’m sure it was slightly graceless, as like all the things I did at the time seem to have been.
AT: I met Piers on our very first week in college.
PG: It must have been day one or two. It was really early.
AT: We went to a super PC liberal arts school, and so our freshmen mixer was a cross-dressing dance. Which is such an outdated term now but whatever, that’s what it was called.
PG: I think all they told us was, “You should wear clothes of the opposite gender.” They probably said it in a way that’s slightly more, you know, more literate in the differences between gender and biological sex than what I just said.
AT: It was a strange way to make first impressions on each other. Not because we were scared of wearing dresses or backward baseball caps, or whatever we wore that night. It was because, for many of us, we had to borrow clothes from the other people in our hall. It was weirdly intimate. Piers and I, complete strangers, swapped outfits.
PG: You’re tall and I’m tall, and I think that you’re probably the only person in the hall, if not the building whose clothes would have fit me.
AT: I remember I loaned Piers a pink swirly-patterned mini dress from the 60’s that I had bought from a thrift store. I had no idea if he would take care of it, or even return it. Piers tried it on, it looked great, and he went to check himself out in the bathroom down the hall. And here’s what happened next.
PG: I immediately locked myself out of my room. And I was like, “Oh no my keys are in my room!” because I didn’t have anywhere to put them! The dress had no pockets.
AT: Piers’ brand new roommate let him back in, but then he went to sleep, so Piers wanted to make sure he didn’t make that mistake again. He couldn’t lose his keys at the party.
PG: We all ended up in the big dancehall where there’s really loud music and it was like, unbearably hot. All the ladies eyebrow pencil mustaches were running onto their teeth with sweat and things like that. And I believe I just clutched my keys in my hand and thought about it really hard all night, which sounds crazy.
AT: Womenswear is littered with fake pockets that don’t open, or shallow pockets that could hardly hold a paperclip. If there are pockets at all, they are just smaller, and they fit less than men’s pockets do. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
AT: Here we are going to the police supply store. I wanted to find an example of a uniform that had pockets, and compare those made for men and those for women. This is the shop that provides the uniforms for the Oakland police. When I asked the store manager if I could look at the men’s and women’s uniforms, this is what he told me.
SM: You ready for this?
AT: I’m ready for this.
SM: The women wear the mens.
SM: Because the pockets are too small on the women’s.
AT: Wait really? That’s why?
SM: That is why.
AT: But there is a women’s that they make!
SM: But I don’t carry ‘em! Well, I’ve got some over here, but traditionally they use the men’s because the pockets are bigger.
SM: And they can put things in ‘em, and the women’s are smaller, which I can show you, and they won’t fit!
AT: THAT’S FASCINATING.
SM: Now you have something to blog about.
AT: I’ll give you something to blog about! Man’s great evolutionary advantage is the creation of tools. The problem is, we’re not marsupials, we need to carry them somehow. And this idea of who has access to the tools they need, who can walk through the world comfortably and securely; THIS is what we are talking about when we talk about pockets.
HC: Pockets speak to this question of preparedness, and your ability to move in public and to be confident. It’s really difficult to get around if you don’t have what you need, and it’s about, I think it’s about mobility and movement in public.
AT: Hannah Carlson lectures at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she teaches classes in material culture, fashion history, and fashion theory. And she is working on a book about pockets.
HC: If the formal question for me is, “What difference does it make?” “What’s the difference between a pocket and a bag?” And I think the key difference is that the pocket is internal. And it’s secret.
AT: A bag can be stolen. A bag can be lost. And then, that’s it. You don’t have your things anymore.
HC: With a pocket inside, you don’t have to think about it. You forget about it, but you still have stuff in there. It is seen as this territory of your own. That connects you to the objects you carry, in a way. Those objects become part of you.
AT: Case in point, Thomas Jefferson.
HC: Jefferson was called a walking calculator for all the miniature tools and devices he carried. Miniature scales, drawing instruments, a thermometer, a surveying compass, a level, a globe. And he was able to jot down his observations from his daily wanderings
AT: Historically, men have been the ones with these tools for public life on their person at all times. In Hannah Carlson’s research, she found a lot of accounts of women complaining about this.
HC: One woman noted that her son was better equipped than she or her daughter, and she concludes that “A boy’s pockets are his certificate of empire. All through life, he will carry the scepter of dominion by the right of his pockets.” I mean, so it’s this great language I loved. It’s playful, it’s funny, but there’s some seriousness here about what later costume historians call a real social handicap.
AT: Pockets are just a perfect metaphor for privilege. Not only because they are so easily taken for granted by the people who have them, but also because, like the categories of race and gender themselves, pocket disparity is construct! It’s made up! There’s no reason for women’s pockets to be so small! Back In the 18th century, women’s pockets were quite large!
CE: She could hold quite a lot in them! There are accounts of women putting food in it to eat later.
CE: They would have, writing tools. Maybe a small diary, sewing implements; they could carry quite a lot. Especially if you had two.
AT: This Clarissa Esguerra
CE: Yes, I’m Clarissa Esguerra. I am the Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
AT: And where are we now?
CE: We are in a storage area at the museum for our department. And so we have everything laid out on a table currently covered with tissue, but I will reveal them one at a time.
AT: This is a little hard to picture on the radio, but indulge me for a second. Pockets used to be a completely separate garment. They were really more like pouches.
CE: Pockets being suspended from the waist has a really long history, actually. It started, for both men and women, in the Medieval era. They were suspended from their waist over their clothes. And then sometime in the late 17th century, men started having clothes made where pockets were incorporated. They were in their waistcoats and their breeches.
AT: And women’s pockets remained separate from the rest of clothing.
“Oh, Kind of like a fanny pack?”
CE: No, no no no. Okay, think of the pockets on the inside of your jeans, right?. Those teardrop shaped pouches. They were like that, but just on their own, separate from pants, attached to a string.
“And these would be tied around the waist?”
AT: And in some cases, the pouches were really really big, like the length of your forearm. And these detachable pockets were then worn under women’s dresses. So though old dresses look like they have pockets, they really just have cut slits in them.
CE: Women had slits made in the petticoats and dresses and they could access their pockets by going through those slits.
AT: You could reach through to get to your detachable pocket pouches. Does that make sense?
“Eh. Sure why not?”
CE: Would you like to see them?!
CE: Okay, so I thought we would start with the more simpler ones, and then go into the more complicated ones because they were really functional, but also they were an opportunity for splendor.
AT: I’m just going to cut to the complicated, expensive, fancy pockets because they are indeed very splendid.
AT: Oh wow.
CE: So these were very very finely embroidered. This one is a silk pocket, and it’s lightly quilted. And then it is covered with this beautiful floral design chain stitch embroiderys. So these are all tiny, tiny little chain stitches.
AT: Oh my god!
CE: It’s really fine. And there’s a pair of them that match. And this is something that she just wore. and only she and the woman who helped her get dressed, and perhaps her lover saw.
AT: Pockets were almost like lingerie, especially the beautiful expensive ones. The pockets were this intimate thing, close to the body, holding your most precious items safe under the layers of your ginormous fluffy dress. And then came the French Revolution.
CE: The French revolution happened…
AT: Which, in many ways, was a revolution against excess.
CE: These dresses that were made with voluminous silk skirts were no longer fashionable, and what was fashionable were muslin dresses that clung to the body.
HC: So when you get to the 1800s, and the empire style where the waist is pretty much gone, think of Jane Austin movies. You have the columnar silhouette.
AT: And some of these dresses have a slit for pockets, but a lot of them are too body-hugging to accommodate extra bulge.
CE: There’s no space for pockets and so suddenly women begin to carry little purses. And there’s lots of ridicule of women having to lose their pockets and having to carry these silly bags.
CE: And at the time they called the “reticules” because they were so small.
AT: Reticule? Like “ridiculous?”
CE: Like ridiculous.
AT: Reticules, were teeny, teeny, tiny little drawstring pouches. Elaborately beaded and decorated. They held maybe a few coins, and some keys but like, that’s it. And you could hang the loops of the drawstring around your wrist, which was another reason why it was considered ridiculous.
HC: You have to remember to carry it, it’s easy to lose, people can steal it. That’s the formal difference.
AT: But that’s kind of the price you pay for fashion. The little bags were in style. And I mean you can see why, if you look at them. They’re beautiful.
BB: Very fancy beautiful thing, shell-shaped or made of silk. Gorgeous things, they are to be seen. Not particularly capacious.
AT: This is dress historian Barbara Burman
BB: The reticule becomes a kind of a temporary fashionista thing, and so you get journalists writing in the first and second decades of the 19th Century about the pocketists and anti-pocketists.
AT: The fashion press made pockets seems like they were for housewives. For women who needed to lug around sewing kits, and bits of food they were saving for later. The Anti-pocketists were the ones going out dancing and gambling.
BB: They have these beautiful little reticules and they’re much more fashionable. They don’t need to carry keys and bibles and stacks of pins and all these useful things in their pockets because they don’t have that kind of life. They’re much more out and about. And this pocketists anti-pocketist debate was strung along to gain readership I suppose.
AT: In the 19th century, fashion magazines were saying it was a liberating thing for women to not have pockets. To be free from tasks. Reticules, which hardly held anything, were kind of like long nails that don’t let you use your hands, or stiletto heels that don’t let you walk far. There’s that luxury in not moving much or doing much, and just looking really good. And it’s always been an ongoing debate if that is empowering or not. But it’s not like the reticule completely killed the tie-on the pocket. They were still around.
BB: A woman could perfectly well have a pair of pockets and also a reticule for when she wanted to be a bit showy. They co-exist. And this kind of pocket clearly outlives the reticule.
You find them in use in the 17th century, going right through to the 20th century.
AT: So why don’t we have these anymore, if it wasn’t the columnar silhouette?
BB: Search me! Search me. I mean if you can come up with a good answer… It’s very difficult to pinpoint it. They fade from use, they become old-fashioned, more dresses start to have integrated pockets but they’re often very small. Not always, but they are often very small and very difficult to access.
AT: The womenswear that had integrated pockets were kind of feminized version of menswear.
BB: Made by men. Made by tailors, not dressmakers; and out of habit the tailors would be putting in proper, fitted in pockets so to speak like men’s pockets, because they are using male tailoring techniques.
AT: Basically, if an outfit had an inset pocket, it was a uselessly proportioned version of a man’s pattern.
BB: The pocket is seen to be a monopoly of the male sex eventually. Pockets and trousers are one, and as women’s fashions change, pockets can be lost.
AT: And as men’s fashions change, pockets can be gained. And they were, again and again and again, pockets were getting added, and added, and added over the course of decades. And by the early 20th century it was just getting ridiculous.
CE: Copious amounts of pockets. I can’t even, like, you have your ticket pocket for the train, you have your coin pocket, watch pocket, breast pocket. Then you have all the pockets in your waistcoat and then in your trousers. It’s really interesting, and women have one purse.
AT: Both gendered extremes were starting to get terrible.
HC: Because pockets had proliferated, they had become completely worthless. You couldn’t find anything! You’d stop on the street, you had to pat yourself down to remember where you left your wallet!
AT: The average man of 1944 had 24 pockets. Which was way too many. At least according to Bernard Rudolfsky.
HC: He was kind of enraged by the way pockets kept popping up.
AT: Bernard Rudolfsky was an architect. A modernist architect, and modernists were really into sleek, simple buildings that were absolutely functional with no excess.
HC: He was this modernist that wanted to make clothing perfectly rational.
AT: And he found it ironic that the rational modernist architects were all wearing suits.
HC: He wanted to shake up this confidence that we have about the suit and suggest, no no, it is not modern in any way! It has all sorts of old ideas and beliefs. And this pocket that was once functional is now no longer functional because we have so many.
AT: And to prove his point, God love him, Rudolfsky puts on an exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1944. And It was called Are Clothes Modern?
HC: “Are Clothes Modern?” was the question.
“Pssst, the answer was no.”
AT: The central piece in Rudolfsky’s MoMA exhibit was a big multilayered infographic chart, it looked like an x-ray of a man’s 3 piece suit.
EC: We have color-coded the pockets in his shirt, in his vest, in his coat. and overcoat. And you see this wonderful chaotic overlay of 24 pockets.
AT: The average suit had 24 pockets and 70 buttons. Rudolfsky was really passionate about how completely silly and redundant this was.
EC: The guy is a wonderful nutball.
AT: But Rudolfsky was really onto something. Because he wasn’t only about abolishing suits. He thought that at the root of this insane pocket conundrum, was a much larger problem. Which is about generally what we consider clothing to be.
HC: Clothing hanging on hangers to him looked like people’s sort of, dead skins. You know, and he wanted to be able to show that you could travel to a friends house and they would have clothes for you because clothing wouldn’t be individual to the body. Universal size, universal clothes, unisex clothing.
AT: Universal clothing, according to Rudolfsky, would be more like a toga, or apparel that embraced the nature of cloth itself. Something that would drape and move naturally.
HC: He hated the idea that through clothes we could show ideas of status and gender that were unfair. He hated the expense, the waste. And so he wanted this really simple cloth, and of course, the images that he showed, his ideas for this new utopian future, are very simple clothing that have no pockets!
AT: A world with no pockets at all. And no bags!
PG: You might know the perfect world when you arrive there by its pocketlessness.
AT: My college friend Piers got really into researching and reading about pockets, long after his debacle with my dress.
PG: There’s this whole strain of thought which suggests that if the world were perfect, if society were perfect, if we lived in a utopia of some kind, where you didn’t have to worry about your physical safety, you didn’t have to worry about somebody robbing your house, you wouldn’t need pockets, in order to carry money, in order to carry keys
AT: And certainly in the course of time, we have come to hold fewer and fewer things in our pockets.
HC: All those little devices of Jefferson’s are contained in a single phone that we carry externally on our body. And the pocket really is this sort of, knowledge envelope. This compartment.
AT: But the phone stays adjacent to us, removed. Encased in a bag or pocket. Tech companies have tried to sell us on wearables; on Apple watches and Google glasses, which would take your tools out of your pocket entirely. And maybe bring us a step closer to that pocketless utopia. But these products haven’t taken off in the way they were supposed to.
HC: Wearables were foreseen a long time ago and we’re still a little anxious about their use. I think there’s just too much doubt at the moment about whether that utopia can ever work.
AT: And perhaps one day we’ll have all our tools implanted in our skull, or embedded on an accessory, which everyone will be able to access in the same way. And then, when we get there, pockets will seem just as ancient as Rudolfsky thought them to be. Already, it seems so antiquated that clothes are needlessly gendered in the way they are. Because we all should have access to the tools we need. Or at least a place to put our hands.