Three years ago, Evelyn Frison set out to re-engineer professional women’s pants.
She wasn’t exactly the person you’d expect to take on this task: She had no background in fashion design, having studied journalism in college and pursued a career in marketing. But she had spent most of her adult life lamenting how terrible office-appropriate pants were. She had identified all of their problems: They often stretched out at the knees and bottom. They wrinkled and stained easily. But one thing bothered her more than anything else. “I hate how so many women’s pants don’t have real pockets,” Frison says. “Where are we supposed to put our keys? Our cards? Our phones? And what on earth is the purpose of a fake pocket that is sewn shut?”
“A boy’s pockets are his certificate of empire”
These are good questions. And Frison is not alone in finding it weird that her clothes are so lacking in functional pockets.
Historian Hannah Carlson has found many examples of women bemoaning their lack of pockets for the past two centuries. For many of these women, the fact that men are entitled to pockets and women are not is yet another example of male privilege. Take this quote from an American woman, printed in Harper’s Magazine in the 1890s, who observed that her young son already had pockets in his clothes, while she and her daughter had none. “A boy’s pockets are his certificate of empire,” she wrote. “All through life, he will carry his scepter of dominion by the right of his pockets.”
While fashion has changed dramatically over the last 200 years, the pocket gender gap is still alive and well. Today’s children experience the same pocket discrepancy that the American woman describes in the anecdote above. If you scan through the clothes in my 2-year-old daughter’s closet, there is hardly a pocket in sight. She has dozens of pocketless leggings, a few dresses with pockets so shallow you can’t put anything in them, and a pair of jeans with fake pockets sewn shut. Meanwhile, my editor’s 2-year-old son has dozens of trousers in his closet with functional pockets. One pair has a total of six pockets. A scepter of dominion, indeed.
The vast majority of adult women’s clothes don’t have thoughtfully designed pockets. In fact, pockets are such a rarity that the few brands that do include them make a big deal out of it on their product descriptions. Take British brand Boden, for instance, which describes its Margo dress in this way: “This soft, elegant number is made to flatter with an elegant scoop neck, cap sleeves, and a ruched waist. If you’re still not convinced, how about this? POCKETS.” Workwear brand MM.Lafleur has a pair of pants with deep pockets, which the website says, “Offer plenty of room to stash keys, mints, notes, an extra packet of hot sauce . . . you name it.”
Frison doesn’t want pockets to be a novelty. Three years ago, she launched her womenswear brand, Pivotte, that specializes in creating women’s work pants. Well-designed pockets that can actually, you know, hold stuff, are a nonnegotiable for her. “There’s no point in having a pocket if you can’t put your phone in it,” says Frison. “We need to be thinking about what women actually want to carry around with them in their pockets.”
Back in 2015, she partnered with fashion designer Yehua Yang, who previously worked at Calvin Klein, Kaufman Franco, and Badgley Mischka. Together, Yang and Frison have designed four pairs of trousers. If you scan through them on the website, you’ll see pockets everywhere. In the brand’s popular “24/7” slacks, there are four generously sized pockets that are all subtly incorporated into the garment so they don’t stick out on the sides, which would ruin the body-hugging silhouette. In the Vivi leggings, there’s a sleek side pocket that serves as a cool design feature, but also holds an iPhone. The loosely fitting Venture trousers has a whopping six pockets. And Frison says that women often use all of them.
“Many women don’t need to carry a handbag anymore,” she says. “Instead, they distribute their wallet, phone, and keys throughout their pockets, and walk out the door. Like a man.”
The 18th-century origins of pocket privilege
It’s a curious accident of history that women’s fashion is so often devoid of pockets. After all, there is no functional reason to include pockets in men’s garments but leave them out of women’s garments. In an episode of the Articles of Interest podcast that focuses on the history of pockets, producer Avery Trufelman describes the arbitrariness of pockets like this.
“Pockets are just a perfect metaphor for privilege,” she says. “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.”
In fact, there have been times in history when men and women actually had pockets that were the same size. Medieval dress historians say that pockets were first invented about 1,000 years ago. Back then, both men and women carried little pouches that hung at their hips like a kind of ancient fanny pack. But then came a major innovation in women’s dress: Clothing makers cut slits in the sides of women’s voluminous skirts and petticoats, so that women could wear their pouches underneath their clothes, but still had easy access to them. Meanwhile, tailors began to sew pockets into men’s trousers and coats.
These interior pockets were important, says Carlson, the historian. It’s harder to steal things from an interior pocket, which means you don’t need to constantly think about the objects you are carrying, and you can focus on the task at hand. And in many ways, this is still true today. Women who carry handbags have a distinct disadvantage compared to men who hold everything in their pockets. Women toting a bag don’t have their hands free, so they are not as mobile. They need to constantly remember where they left their bag when they put it down. And, of course, it is much easier to snatch a handbag than remove a wallet from an interior pocket. “Holding things in your hand takes up time and mental space,” Carlson tells me. “The invention of pockets does away with this worry.”
But things changed for the worse for women in the years after the French Revolution–at least as far as pockets are concerned–creating the basis for the modern pocket gender gap. Rather than large, expensive gowns with many petticoats, women began to opt for thin body-hugging dresses during this period. The goal of this shift in clothing was noble: Women wanted to reject the excessive clothing of the wealthy, aristocratic class. But these new gowns didn’t leave enough room for the interior pouch, and adding sewn-in pockets would upset the curved silhouette of the skirt. Meanwhile, men still had interior pockets sewn into their trousers.
For the past 200 years, this pocket disparity has continued–spurring a lot of debate about whether pockets are liberating or oppressive. For one thing, there are issues of class that intersect with gender. Working class people had more things to carry around with them–like bits of food for breaks, and tools for the job–than wealthier people who didn’t have jobs. So, throughout the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, when lower-middle-class workers moved off farms and into factories, not having pockets was a sign of freedom from work and worry. And, by extension, the fact that many women were pocket-free also meant that they were above everyday concerns.
The other side of this argument? That by denying women pockets, you assert that women don’t have a productive role to play in society. In other words, not including pockets in clothes sends a message to women that their place is at home, rather than out in the world. Carlson believes that pockets are not just about what is fashionable, but about deeper social beliefs about gender.
“This is a design issue, but one that takes into account women’s supposed social roles,” she says. “I don’t think you can divorce the two. This has to do with questions about the public spaces where women are allowed to move: What is the point for women to have clothes outfitted with pockets if you also believe that their place is in the home?”
The pocket revolution
This is still a relevant point today. While men in the workplace have all the pockets they need to hold their wallets, office key cards, and smartphones, many women still don’t have designated space in their clothing for these items.
So it’s no surprise that much of today’s pocket innovation is happening with women’s workwear brands. Sali Christeson, who cofounded women’s workwear brand Argent two years ago, believes that the lack of pockets in clothing impacts women’s productivity in the workforce. She spent years in finance and technology, wearing pocketless trousers and blazers to work, and saw firsthand how this aggravates the gender disparity in the workplace.
“So much of women’s workwear is designed to look good, but not actually support women as they do their jobs,” she says. “Just think of how much time women waste digging through their purse for their phone or keycard. If you add up all the minutes, it’s a lot of time.”
As Christeson began designing women’s workwear, she discovered that incorporating pockets into clothing comes with some design hurdles. Much like the dresses of the French Revolution, women’s clothes today are designed to cling to the body, which sometimes makes it difficult to include interior pockets that can house plenty of bulky, heavy items. But Argent has managed to sprinkle pockets throughout its entire line, from shift dresses to trousers to blazers.
“Pockets are not even a particularly difficult design challenge to overcome,” says Christeson. “The fact that more brands are not trying to design better pockets is really symptomatic about how lazy they are about responding to women’s needs.”
Argent’s blazers, for instance, have several cavernous pockets in them. One pocket is specifically designed for your iPhone. It is made of mesh, so you can simply glance inside your blazer to check your updates and messages without even taking out the phone. The bags of the pockets are made out of a microfiber cloth that is specifically designed to clean glasses and phone screens. There are special pockets for pens and key cards too, and on trousers and dresses, the pockets are designed to hold plenty of items–wallets, phones, random office paraphernalia–without causing the outfit to sag or become misshapen.
Christeson says there isn’t one trick to making these designs work. Just plenty of hard work prototyping. Argent’s designers iterate on each outfit many times, placing pockets in different spots and filling them up with lots of items. They then send real women into the world in these garments to see how they stand up to everyday wear.
In the end, this is what the move to design pockets back into women’s clothing is all about: Allowing women to go out into the world and participate equally with their male counterparts.
Pockets also show how clothing design–arbitrary and haphazard as it sometimes is–can shape society in profound ways. Both Argent and Pivotte have shown that it’s possible to create beautiful, fashionable clothing full of functional pockets–it just takes a bit more time and effort than going along with the status quo. The founders of these brands hope that they’re helping to spearhead a bigger pocket revolution. “Women’s pockets shouldn’t be a novelty item,” Frison says.
I’m hoping that by the time my 2-year-old hits the workforce, she’ll have her pick of clothes in every style and size with pockets aplenty. But for the time being, her only clothes with pockets are a pair of yellow shorts. The novelty of having pockets in her shorts fills her with such joy: She stuffs them with her treasured possessions, like an acorn she found at the park, or a medal she got for completing her swimming lessons. But it’s getting cold now, and she still insists on wearing them to daycare. It might be time for me to pick up a pair of trousers from the boy’s department.