The first examples of pockets began to be inserted into men’s clothing at the end of the 1600s. Before this construction development, illustrations show that men used small pouches, which hung from a belt around the waist. These separate pouches could be concealed inside of a coat or tunic. The words pouch and pocket are related, through the Middle English/Northern French word pouche, originally describing a small bag.
For women, pockets remained an accessory that tied around the waist and was accessed through an opening in a skirt’s seam. The full skirts of the 1700s allowed these pockets to be easily hidden.
The political revolutions of the late eighteenth century produced a revolution in fashion for both genders. The change in women’s clothing was dramatic; no one wanted to look like those facing the guillotine in France. Fashionable dresses echoed the clothing thought to be worn by women in ancient Greece, with a slim silhouette and high waist. This fashion revolution included dress fabrics as well, with lighter cotton materials replacing the heavy brocades and silks of the previous century. This use of cotton materials corresponded to the technological innovations occurring in the textile industry as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in England.
Early nineteenth century fashion plates show women carrying small bags, known as reticules, as an accessory. The dresses couldn’t accommodate a pocket. But by the 1840s, skirts once again became fuller, and dresses sometimes had a single pocket sewn into a skirt’s side front seam. These inseam pockets were easily constructed, providing a place for at least a handkerchief. This type of pocket can be found in dresses from the 1840s through the end of the century, a time when most dresses were made at home or by a dressmaker.
But let’s skip ahead to the twentieth century, when several important ideas contributed to changing fashions and the use of pockets in women’s clothing. Women were fighting for the right to vote. During World War I, many women began working in jobs traditionally held by men. These circumstances triggered changes in fashion, with, again, a slimmer silhouette replacing the long, full skirts of the century before and the Edwardian era. Women’s clothing began to adopt styles and details from men’s attire. Pockets were part of this assimilation, clearly seen when women began wearing suits and trousers in the 1940s.
Today, pockets on women’s clothing can be practical or just a design element. Some have questioned the gender neutrality of pockets, particularly noting differences between pockets in clothing identified as men’s or women’s in some of today's garments. A search of the Internet for “pockets and politics” or the “history of pockets” provides some thoughtful commentary on this subject.
Burman, Barbara and Ariane Fennetaux. The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women's Lives, 1660 - 1900. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2019.
Susan J. Jerome is collections manager at the University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection. She earned her MS degree from the University of Rhode Island, Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design. Prior to continuing her education, she worked for a number of years at Mystic Seaport Museum. She lectures on topics of fashion history and needlecraft; works as a textile and quilt conservator; and is a consultant to museums and historical societies. An avid textile enthusiast, she is happiest when writing, talking, and doing all things textile.