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What if women had more pockets?

What do you have in your pockets right now?

If you’re a man then you probably have three or four things- wallet, keys, comb, phone? If you’re a woman then you are lucky if you have pockets. In 2016, 60% of top fashion labels were helmed by men and they seem to have unanimously agreed that women’s clothes mostly shouldn’t have pockets.

I would like pockets in every skirt, dress, skort, culottes, shorts and pair of trousers. And I am not alone in wanting more pockets in women’s clothing, particularly dresses. Instagram currently has 12 500 posts tagged with #dresseswithpockets along with some 30 hashtag variations including #dresseswithpocketsmakemehappy and #dresseswithpocketsforthewin. There are 10 IG accounts with names based on the ‘dresses with pockets’ theme including ‘fuck yeah dresses with pockets’. Twitter is rife with similar sentiment, a search for ‘dresses with pockets’ brings up an endless stream (is there any other kind in Twitter?) of pleas for MORE POCKETS. This conversation has been going on for a long time. 

Most clothing for women doesn’t have usable pockets, despite the obvious desire for them. This seems like further evidence that we still live firmly entrenched in stereotypes and outdated design as Tanya Basu noted in The Atlantic. No doubt other factors come into play- incremental decision making and a healthy dollop of innocence are probably partly to blame. As a woman it does often feel like our everyday objects have been hacked by a shadowy force (the Knights of Patriarchy?) that ensures that we are constantly slower, colder and more consumed with organisational problems than men.

Academic Tim Wu points out in his new polemical book The Attention Merchants, that this subtle and detail-oriented handicapping has been going on for centuries through a steady supply of clever design and advertising: corsets, pencil skirts, menthol cigarettes, handbags, high heels, underwired bras, beautiful stationery, floral scented cleaning products. All designed to turn our deepest desires against us and to fit us into a neat box. As Lindy West says in Shrill, ‘feminism is really just the slow realisation that the things you love hate you.’ God I love Lindy West, her writing makes me breathe fire. 

"Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration." Tease apart that quote and you get a fairly essentialist view of gender roles as they play out in clothing.

Chelsea Summers quoting Paul Johnson

There are A LOT of articles written about pockets, particularly pockets in women’s clothing. In fact, Marian Keyes published one this past Saturday in the Irish Times. As well as the piece in The Atlantic mentioned above, there is an incredible piece by Chelsea Summers on Racked called The Politics of Pockets that finishes with a stunning analysis of Hilary Clinton’s pocketless pantsuits: ‘Seamless and sealed, these suits present Clinton’s body like a saint’s. Nothing goes into the suits, nothing comes out.’ I highly recommend you read it after you’re done here.

There is a very funny piece by Niina Pollari also on Racked (Go Racked!) that argues that pockets ruin dresses. While I definitely identify with her statement: ‘While I admire your aspirations to Konmari your personal belongings and appear carefree, I am not carefree.’ And I agree that the aesthetics of pockets could do with some work, I think that if THINX can be a thing, then we should be able to have both- flattering and practical. But I do have a question about their role in bringing about change, especially maybe in our perception of gender.

But why do I want pockets so much? As Niina Pollari asks, how would l use them? There are downsides to pockets. Men accumulate a panoply of extra doodads weighing down their jeans, distorting the line of their trousers, fading patches of fabric on their butts. Their phones fall out of their pockets into toilet bowls, money flutters to the ground unseen when they pull out keys, they have no room for lip balm. Wait…damn them! Is lip balm one of their design traps? What’s the cost-benefit analysis of lip balm? Fuck. I just googled ‘Is lip balm sexist?’, as if I didn’t already know the answer, and found ‘Dude stick’. Sigh. Change happens SLOWLY… right?

I know that I feel most at ease in clothing that has pockets I can thrust my hands into. Even jeans fail on this front, they are mostly too ‘skinny’ to allow for that kind of bold gesture. Jeans do enable me to slip my phone in my back pocket, which I appreciate, although I’m extra careful around toilets. I don’t know how many people under 40 have Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall as daily role models, not enough I suspect, but I conjure up images of them at will. When I put my hands in my pockets I am trying to achieve what they projected so searingly: casual wit, easy-going determination, disarming intelligence. As with most practised behaviour, the hands-in-pockets stance is also protective and reassuring, like Annie Hall, slightly askance, I feel self-assured, I am waiting to be convinced.

Foolishly, it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that some of the confidence-giving power of pockets comes from their masculinity. I always thought that I found them comforting and chic because of how they kept my hands still, how the fabric felt against my skin, how they made me feel more equipped for work on the move. All of these aspects are valid but I also have to factor in that pockets allow me to mimic official and powerful men. That’s what Bacall was doing when, as Vivian in The Big Sleep, she meets Marlowe in black trousers, hooking one finger onto the edge of her right pocket to show ease and worldliness. Pockets have always mostly been a man’s domain and she glided right into it.

Hands in pockets can express confidence and control (you don’t need hands to emphasise your words or to fight) but they can also express hostility, stubbornness and defensiveness. Adam Driver gave a great TED talk in 2016 about his journey from Marine to actor. He is articulate, moving, informed and he has his hands in pockets during most of it. So now we think he is also shy, reserved and possibly anxious.

When I taught secondary school English I worried a lot about my hands. Without pockets they fluttered nervously, betraying more than I wanted, undermining my words. When I wore suit trousers with pockets, my hands were stilled and my shoulders were thrown wide. My hands in pockets may have come across as shy or defensive but, on balance, I would prefer being seen as confident, possibly reserved, rather than having my self-doubt broadcast with every hand wringing.

On a very practical note, I would definitely use my pockets for pens and tissues. I have low blood pressure and I’m a woman therefore I am constantly cold, which means that I often have a runny nose (if anyone has any other ideas, please share). I require tissues all year round. Currently, I stuff them up my sleeves just like my Gran. As a child I thought this habit was a very old-lady habit, practical but not stylish. Now I have more sympathy, I see the dilemma they were in. I too have become the person with an odd bulge on her right wrist, appearing blobs of mashed up toilet paper out of her sleeve like an amateur magician and showering the bedroom floor with Kleenex when I get undressed.

And I always need a pen, which means they are perpetually out of my grasp. When I was working full-time in a school, I used to feel that pens became a communal possession, they were continually disappearing and reappearing on every surface, but never when you wanted one. I stockpiled Biros in my desk drawer, I gathered up lost fountain pens off my classroom carpet, I filled a mug with ragtag bunch of pencils. Nothing worked. Writing implements wandered off like unruly Pixar characters. I longed for Inspector Gadget hands, able to quickfire release a UniBall fine liner with a cocky flick of my arm. Pockets would work just as well.

The first time my boyfriend Andy met my Dad– a nerve racking experience at the best of times- it was a bone-chilling day in January and my Dad was uncharacteristically bundled up in a warm jacket with large patch pockets. We had chosen to meet my parents in East London and despite the cold, we ambled around Brick Lane for most of the day so that we could all chat easily. As we walked, my Dad periodically produced sweets out of his coat pockets. Eventually, much to Andy’s delight, he reached into his pocket and produced a banana. God knows what else was in there.

When we get home and before we go to bed, Andy empties his pockets. The hall table, his bedside table, both are studies in floatsam and jetsam. When I look down at his bedside table I feel like I am looking into the past at a long history of ‘boys’ pockets’: rubber bands, batteries, keys, bits of wire, balls of fluff, pebbles. I imagine there is very little difference between my Dad’s pocket contents and Andy’s, very little difference between theirs and famous men… Galileo, Einstein, Obama…all linked by their habit of accumulating stuff in their pockets.

With very little thought or attention, pockets play into a whole narrative of the hunter-gatherer, the scientist, the provider, the leader. Even in the 17th century when women had pockets in their petticoats, they used them differently to men, storing personal items that had more to do with care than inquiry: cosmetics, jewellery, keepsakes, food. They were tiny spaces of safety, individuality and privacy hidden in their clothes, perhaps sometimes the only safe, personal, private spaces in their whole lives.

Every human being is a wet, gassy katamari of triumphs, traumas, scars, coping mechanisms, parental baggage, weird stuff you saw on the Internet too young, pressure from your grandma to take over the bodega when what you really want to do is dance, and all the other fertilizer that makes a smear of DNA grow into a fully formed toxic avenger.

Lindy West

If women demand more efficient clothing (preserving style) what new habits would form? What old habits would disappear? Streamlined handbags or fewer handbags, easy access to pens and tissues, more confidence, less visible anxiety. No more relying on men for quick access to house keys, supplying you with bananas when hungry or putting lipstick in their suit jacket at a wedding. Would we feel more organised and lighter? More prepared, less prepared?

Would smaller handbags and effective pockets mean we have less convenience, and less of the things we use to care for ourselves and for others? Or would we redesign clothes to include pockets for aspirin, band-aids, snacks, sun cream? I thought about advocating that we abandon dresses altogether but they are practical and comfortable, so I’m seeing this as a ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bath water’ situation. Pockets in our dresses is a small battle but it can serve to show us that we take some things for granted. They are a reminder that there are many invisible things that we are going to have to make visible and rethink as we try to change our gender dynamics.

When I am weary, frustrated and beset with thoughts of being ridiculous, of over reacting, I often feel that I don’t want to excavate my handbag or carry bulky keys in my dress: I want my boyfriend to carry them in his pocket. I have to remind myself of the wider issues: fairness, empathy, safety and how their importance dwarfs convenience, familiarity and safe warm habit. I thrust my hands out looking for small spaces of security and power and find empty air. I want sturdy pockets and I want to know how to demand them. I think of the history of women’s rights and how big changes came from small actions, how they came from not ‘lightening up’ as Roxane Gay discusses in Bad Feminist, ‘because if you lighten up any more, you are going to float the fuck away.’

You only have to look back five years to see a different world and, by extension, tangible proof that culture is ours to shape, if we try.

Lindy West

Of course, my discussion so far has relied on ‘men and women’ remaining as the binary view of personhood, which it won’t. As we address gender inequality and gender fluidity, we have to think about habit forming, of which pockets are a great example, and the myriad invisible ways in which genders are taught to behave differently because of divergent design. We need to start radically reassessing clothing and the stereotypes associated with them. Clothing is still incredibly binary, regardless of fashion, and to make room for gender fluidity and equality, it needs to change. And we need to be careful about how the gender debate crowds out intersectionality, leaving minority groups, who already suffer from asymmetrical power, even further out of the discussion.

Josephine Livingstone eloquently writes in The New Republic that what we are faced with ‘[is] nothing less than a utopian project. That includes being specific and rigorous about the terms of the demands, and not accepting a reductive, simplistic version of them.’ Pockets seem simplistic but they lead into bigger questions and spark a rigorous look at our everyday. I’m not naive enough to think that these details are going to single handedly change gender dynamics- 17th century women had pockets and less power. I do think they show us that we have to do that very difficult thing of examining our habits, our institutions, our design, our language, our whole world.

Then we have believe we can change them and be patient while they do. Now that I’m older I’ve come to realise that we all live in an uncertain, unfinished place and that leaves us open and makes me hopeful that can untangle habit from intention from the very big to the very small, from the visible to the invisible.

P.S.: Maybe it’s time to revive the Rational Dress Society…wait…*googles*…of course someone already has. I KNEW that Star Trek had it right…jumpsuits are the answer.

star trek

Top Annie Hall illustration by Parnaz Karimi

Photo of Katherine Hepburn by Alfred Eisenstaedt from The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Inspector Gadget illustration by Jose Coba

All Lindy West quotes from her book Shrill– GO AND READ IT NOW! Read it again if necessary.

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