When we were young we learned that pockets are useful places to store all kind of tools and treasures including but not limited to: coins, pebbles, seashells, snacks, feathers, small animals on occasion, notes, toys and other secrets. As adults, we have arguably many more items of importance that we need to keep on our person to be able to go about our daily routines. Our phones, wallets, multiple forms of identification, keys, money and crumpled receipts we’ve deemed necessary to hold onto often make it to their intended destination solely based on the carrying capacity of our pockets.
Think about it: Have you ever taken something out of your pocket and set it down only to have to double back to retrieve it? Have you ever washed a load of laundry without first checking your pockets and stumbled upon a collection of items at the bottom of the dryer? Have you experienced the excitement of retrieving a lost item or unexpected cash from the pocket of a seldom-worn pair of jeans?
As a woman and wearer of feminine garments, I am all too familiar with that sense of frustration unique to discovering that a garment I intended on wearing is not adequately pocketed. When I began to wear gender-specific clothing in early adolescence, the sartorial limitations I encountered quickly became aggravating. The clothing that I wanted to wear wasn’t serving what I considered a necessary function. Realistically, I need a minimum of two large pockets and two small pockets on a pair of pants--that’s a pocket for my phone, one for my wallet, another for my keys and an extra for loose change or trash I haven’t yet had a chance to throw away. Why, then, do so many garments in the women’s section lack the carrying capacity for the necessities?
Is the lack of pockets on garments designed for women a feminist issue? Absolutely. I’ll admit I thought it was a stretch, too, when the question was first posed to me: we can’t even get equal pay, but I’m supposed to be up in arms about a few pockets here and there? Aren’t there bigger issues at hand? Yes, there are--and this issue feeds into them. On a macro level, the absence of pockets in womenswear is indicative of society’s propensity to mitigate the importance of the work that women and feminine-of-center people do. Clothing designed for women often isn’t produced with utility in mind, which undermines the importance of women in society and in the workforce.
In 2017, it’s safe to say that most people in general who purchase manufactured clothing generally carry the bare minimum of a wallet and a cell phone on their person at all times. Now, the expectation for women is that there will be a purse or other external storage device being utilized in addition to the clothing item in question. It is not uncommon for manufacturers to create faux pockets as design elements; these faux pockets generally are about an inch or so in depth so as not to form ridges under the fabric. This design element is meant to be a solution to the issue posed by adding functional pockets to form-fitting womenswear: because women’s garments are typically designed to be skin-tight on the wearer, any internal lining or additional fabric used to create a functional pocket will create an impression on the outside of the garment. Womenswear designers perceive the fundamental purpose of their product to be the showcasing of a woman’s natural body shape, and any bunching of pocket fabric would disrupt that. In women’s pants especially, the pocket slits will be sewn shut directly behind the opening to create the illusion of a pocket without any actual storage capacity.
According to Gerald Aselin, a Los Angeles-based women’s fashion designer, the lack of pockets in women’s clothing is certainly a product of patriarchal values. He’s something of an authority on the subject, since he has been been working in the industry for five years and designs for companies like Nordstrom, Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. He says clothing designed for women is a symptom of a much larger issue relating to the prioritization of superficial beauty and unrealistic expectations for women’s appearances: “Heaven forbid women look like they have big thighs.” Because sex appeal and socially ascribed gender expectations dictate much of what is appropriate for women to wear, women are discouraged from dressing “frumpy” or in a manner that hides their bodies. This rules out bulky or loose-fitting clothing--which is much more likely to have pockets than slinkier womenswear. “It’s almost like, ‘Oh, well, we can’t have a deep pocket on this item because these shorts are too short or these pants are too tight,’” says Aselin, highlighting the fact that “make the garment less tight” tends not to be considered as a solution to that particular problem. The average inseam for women’s shorts is between two inches and two-and-a-quarter inch, leaving no room for pockets capable of holding any more than a few small items. Designers are often pressured to take hanger appeal into consideration above concerns of function: “It has to look small and cute on the hanger. Otherwise it won’t sell.”
The evolving needs of female consumers over the course of the 20th century seem to have had no impact whatsoever on the availability of functional womenswear (or, rather, the lack thereof). Following the United State’s decision to join with allied forces during World War II, women began to enter the workforce in droves. Since the men were overseas or otherwise indisposed in wartime America, women were left to pick up the slack. Women took to the assembly lines, manufacturing jobs, secretarial work and all the while balancing the responsibilities of being a homemaker as dictated by socially informed gender roles. By 1950, one in three women worked outside the home, and by 1998 that number had increased to almost 60% of women holding a position of employment. Still, even women’s business attire isn’t safe from the pocketless fate of casual wear. In blatant contrast, wander over to the men’s business attire department and you’ll find an array of blazers, jackets, sweaters, trousers and sportcoats with a number of secret pockets--some menswear garments even contain pockets large enough to hold even two full-sized laptops. Business attire is intended for professionals to wear on the job--regardless of the consumer’s gender--so why do designers assume female-identifying professionals will require less wearable storage space?
Women who work in an environment that mandates a professional wardrobe have enough trouble dressing appropriately as it is: women in the workplace are generally under more scrutiny from higher-ups than men for their appearances and adherence to dress-code standards. Skirts must be a certain length, jewelry should be modest, dress shoes (sometimes even heels) are an expectation--and some professional dress codes even implement standards for female employees’ hair and makeup. Statistically, white women make 76 cents to a man’s dollar (with women of color earning even less), so in addition to the expectation of owning a diversified and modest professional wardrobe, women also receive less money with which to do so. Given that women routinely face discrimination and, sexual harassment in the workplace and are forced to assert their authority more often than their male coworkers, the added inconvenience of inadequate pocket space feels a little like being kicked while you’re down.
The essential function served by pockets is one necessary for people of all genders--nobody should need to weigh themselves down with backpacks, purses or other items in order to fulfill basic daily functions. While the overwhelming non-functionality of womenswear may seem like an inconsequential issue (and certainly one that isn’t going to go away anytime soon), it serves as a reminder of the subtle ways the patriarchy affects our everyday life. Something as seemingly innocuous as a lack of pockets is in fact indicative of a broader social pattern in which the work that women do is systemically undervalued. In the same way the wage gap indicates that women’s work is literally less valuable, the lack of pockets telegraphs the expectation that a woman’s appearance is paramount over utility. The prioritization of form over function in womenswear just goes to show that the fight for equality continues… not that we needed the reminder.