The Pocket as a Male Aid and a Female Anchor

April 11, 2017

Olivia Picchione


A handbag demands a similar attention of corporate females that a baby does of mothers. She who must carry what is hers from block to block, office to office, is debilitated not only physically, lugging a mass on her back or in her hand in the rush to meetings, but also mentally, constantly retaining where her bag is, as well as what it is ‘named’ and when it was created. Among the masses of suited men, whose business uniforms compartmentalize and outline their corporate agenda, the woman and her handbag combat over desk space and time wasted rummaging. The handbag develops from what was her utilitarian possession into a social mechanism which defines her entirety, calling attention to her physical actions and psychological tendencies to onlookers.

Christian Dior stated in 1954, “men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.” The evolution of the modern pocket which is featured predominantly, if not only on male clothing since its invention in 17th century Europe demonstrates how male fashion obliges the needs of modern capitalist society, whereas that of female clothing is nonexistent beyond a cosmetic level. Furthermore, the substitution of the woman’s handbag for pockets on female garb in the 19th century demonstrates how the fashion industry frames women to see and be seen through contrived femininity.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, whereas menswear becomes increasingly uniform, womenswear is continually reshaped and ornamented to set and satisfy ever-changing beauty standards. Rachel Lubitz, a writer at Mic, explains individualized, single-layered male coats, waistcoats, and trousers, easily adopt a sewn-in pocket; multi-layered female dresses are cut with slits to access bags hanging over a petticoat, so as to not obstruct the ideal female form.

Pockets on menswear lend the male the privilege of carrying his private belongings in a designated area. They also provide a prop with which the male evokes a sort of integration into his environment. Through the insertion of a male hand into its pocket, the male appears seamless and vertical, resembling phallic imagery in his entirety, a power to commandeer the community at large. Pockets resultantly emulate not only a quantitative wealth, through the literal allotment of public space to the self, but also a qualitative right to social sovereignty, with which the male achieves financial freedom.

As a structural burden, fashionable womenswear does not permit females to ‘fit’ in modern Western communities. Barbara Burman’s Pocketing the Difference explains that instead, the discrepant sizes and arrangement of “tie pockets,” fallaciously “[delineate]” the 18th century woman’s body to express her “inaccessible and unknowable [social power].” As an accessory “laden with meaning about the proper roles and responsibilities of women,” the cavernous sacks earmark upon the female form “a bricolage of practices, skills and artefacts…of a household life.”     

Due to the irrelevance of occupational domesticity in the “order of [the] economy,” says Burman, the fashion industry’s refusal to accommodate the female with legitimate pockets gives way to female subordination in urban Europe. Such ineffectuality of the female form demonstrates a proclivity of the fashion industry to ignore the demands of a modern lifestyle in its creation of femininity.

Carrying “the household,” turns into carrying reticules for women as 19th century fashion presents a new idealized female form which lies close to the body; as the earliest version of a handbag, reticules reveal a visible indication of what, how, and how much the female carries. Her public presence resultantly symbolizes pure face-value to her onlookers, and as an object conveys the social and economic standing of her husband. Burman continues by arguing that the smallness in the reticule’s size exhibits the wife’s needlessness to carry large sums of money which her husband controls. Ornateness in the reticule’s design signifies the degree to which the husband’s income embellishes his wife.    

‘Pockets’ for women increasingly lose functional carrying purposes, and instead become status symbols; the prioritization of spectacle on women’s fashion thus entrenches females in a state of social immobility. Although the reticule augments in size throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to develop into the modern handbag for increasing numbers of working women, it still provides a facet to decode, through display, their implicit inferiority.

Modern gadgets such as the iPhone exhibit discrepancy between gendered fashion tradition and an increasingly equalized playing field for men and women in the work sphere.

The seemingly small issue of lacking a pocket comprises infinite consequences, which amount to the fact that women STILL do not only lack the resources to mobilize and organize themselves that men have, but also are expected to maintain some type of feminine image which does not accommodate their lifestyle. Camilla Olson, creative director of her own fashion firm, exclaims she is still “expected…to carry a purse… when she’s working.” Sara Kozlowksi, who works in professional development at Council of Fashion Designers of America, exclaims that this is due to 21st-century fast- and mass-consumption companies mimicking haute couture trends “that aren’t adapted to the lives of a normal person.” While numerous sartorial innovations, such as shirts, belts, and “bosom friends,” have attempted to aid the mobile woman in hiding or storing her belongings, the need for an entire sub-fashion industry to lend true utility to women’s dress reveals the failure of existent social infrastructure to accommodate and motivate gender equality in an increasingly capitalist society.