By Katy Peachey
Across the fashion industry’s board of basic, everyday wear, there is one distinction between men’s and women’s clothing which is catching quite a bit of negative publicity: the pockets on women’s clothing (particularly pants) are either too small, fake, or nonexistent altogether. According to Jan Diehm and her colleague Amber Thomas, who measured the pockets on 80 pairs of blue jeans for their visual essay through The Pudding, “the pockets on women’s jeans are [on average] 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets.” Though women have not been wearing modern trousers as long as men have, pockets in some form have been around since the medieval era (Summers, “The Politics of Pockets”). While there is no reason women shouldn’t have pockets that match the dimensions of their male counterparts, the general course history has taken shows how society and fashion got to where they are today. Most women carry purses nowadays to make up for lost storage space. However, debates concerning the purse’s origins, necessity, and purposes are threatening the 8 billion dollar purse industry (Diehm and Thomas). It is even possible that the correlation between the size of women’s pockets and the sales of purses is not accidental—hinting at a conspiracy fueled by gender roles and monetary greed. There are three interesting aspects to this pocket conspiracy: the current style, the course of history, and the modern purse.
The first interesting aspect of the pocket conspiracy is the current style. Pockets are designed differently for men’s and women’s clothing, leading to a discrepancy of functionality. Tanya Basu, a writer for The Atlantic, generally defines an optimally functional pocket as one which is able to completely fit an iPhone 6 within it for the purposes of her article, “The Gender Politics of Pockets.” In the article, she writes that even when skinny jeans have pockets, “there is no way an object bigger than a standard issue ID card fits in the front, and everyone knows that slipping a phone in your back pocket is an invitation for a treacherous dive into a toilet, or a backflip resulting in heartbreaking shatters.” At its core, a pocket is meant to be a secure place to store important items like keys, money, and phones. It should be able to fit at least that much. Despite this, “only 40 percent of women’s front pockets can completely fit one of the three leading smartphone brands. Less than half of women’s front pockets can fit a wallet specifically designed to fit in front pockets. And you can’t even cram an average woman’s hand beyond the knuckles into the majority of women’s front pockets” (Diehm and Thomas). If a woman wants a cell phone that does more than call and text, she will have to reconcile with the fact that the phone she has chosen to be her calendar, address book, map, and computer all in one will have to live either in her hand or in a purse. Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director of accessories and menswear at Fendi, plainly reasons, “if you have to multitask, so should your clothes” (qtd. in Friedman). While Fendi is one designer who understands the plight for pockets, other designers have a plethora of excuses not to put pockets in women’s clothing. Basu briefly notes, “Women’s pockets are often located near the hip area, where many women prefer not to attract attention.” In some ways, fashion designers assume no woman will buy clothing with pockets out of fear of bulk around the hips. In addition, they may claim the nature of the silhouettes of the clothes they’re working with prohibit them from adding pockets. Lucee Laursen and Wylliam Smith, students at the University of Iowa, published a Point/Counterpoint Opinions article debating why women’s clothing has smaller pockets for the university’s independent newspaper, The Daily Iowan. Laursen, the Opinions Editor, points out a flaw in those fashion companies’ logic: “Women’s pants tend to be sleeker, more form fitting. Designers have persuaded women that their pockets must be smaller or even nonexistent to fit trends. But this does not actually make sense. Men have form fitting, sleek pants, too, but they still get the luxury of deep pockets that are capable of holding wallets and keys.” It doesn’t matter whether pockets are deemed a necessity or a luxury. It is unfair and unethical for the fashion industry to exclude pockets from women’s apparel while men boast adequate storage for hands, wallets, and phones. The pocket’s design and functionality all contribute to current style, a major part of the pocket conspiracy.
Another interesting aspect of the pocket conspiracy is the course of history. Men and women alike, when approached with the question “Why does women’s clothing have smaller pockets?” seem to have the answer all worked out: it’s because women carry purses. They don’t need all that pocket space when they have this advantage over men—a bag which can hold far more than the average pocket toted around everywhere they go. History, however, refutes this and turns it inside out. To this day, women carry purses because as bags evolved into pockets, women’s pants did not evolve with them. Chelsea G. Summers, a self-proclaimed “ex-academic” who freelances for various journals and magazines, states that as far back as the medieval era, “everyone carried bags […] both men and women tied their bags to the waist or wore them suspended from belts.” Wearing one’s valuables out in the open like that proved dangerous, though, as thieves had fairly open access for stealing those valuables. Fashion began adapting to keep people more secure, and in the seventeenth century, pockets were “permanently sewn into coats, waistcoats, and trousers” in men’s clothing (“Politics”). For women, the bags they previously sported remained tied around their waist, but they migrated to hide underneath layers of petticoats and skirts (“Pockets on Women’s Clothes Matter More Than You Think”). This is about where the discrepancy begins. The same sort of bag men and women wore outside their clothes (sort of like a glorified fanny pack) evolved into pockets for men and purses for women. Daniel Harris, a writer for Skidmore College’s Salmagundi magazine, explains that before the twentieth century, a purse was “a largely optional accessory designed to carry a few basic items for brief excursions to church, the opera, the theater, or other women’s houses” (122). He believes that purses are not as prevalent as they are due to the lack of pockets. Instead, he attributes women’s attachments to purses to their historical attachment to domestic life:
Today, however, it is not the tightness or looseness of clothing that is once again contributing to the demise of the accessory [the purse] but changes in women’s perceived dependence on the private world of domestic life. The waning of the pocketbook’s importance in the modern outfit is the direct outcome of the growing confidence that women below the age of 40 feel as self-sufficient and autonomous individuals who no longer need to carry their houses on their backs in order to survive the workplace […] The modern purse was created not only by the absence of pockets in relatively tight twentieth-century dresses, but by women’s emancipation, by their need to be out-of-doors. (128)
Harris’ chauvinistic verbiage throughout his article suggests that purses are more like a physical manifestation of women’s anxiety about leaving the house. This anxiety, of course, is presumed on his part and has little to no evidence behind it. From World War I, where women first joined the male-dominated workforce, through the 1950’s American Dream/housewife era and the beginnings of feminist breakouts in the 1960s-70s, women have teetered back and forth between pants and skirts. Pockets and purses, too, have fluctuated. But overall, this sequence of events make up the course of history, an interesting aspect of the pocket conspiracy.
The last interesting aspect of the pocket conspiracy is the modern purse. More and more women are revealing that the cons of bearing a purse tend to outweigh the pros. Chelsea Summers outwardly contends, “in addition to having to carry a bag, women have to buy the bag. And because of this, handbags function as a kind of ‘pink tax,’ the price added to everyday objects and services that are sold specifically to a female audience” (“When It Comes”). Vidya Iyer, an opinions, entertainment, and life writer for Georgia Tech’s newspaper Technique, adds that women “spend a considerable amount of money on accessories when that money could be used on enriching experiences.” Although women have fought for the right to vote, and are still fighting for the right to equal pay, “pink tax” items further prove women’s equality remains an issue today. Women aren’t the only ones, however, who have opinions on pockets and purses. Wylliam Smith, who offers his two cents against Lucee Laursen in the previously mentioned Point/Counterpoint article, brings up the idea of gender norms: “Somehow, purses were turned into a ‘lady item,’ so they don’t fit the stereotypical ‘macho male’ persona. […] Men who carry handbags are often seen as effeminate or sissies. These gender norms are slowly fading away, but they still exist, which leads to men needing larger pockets because of their refusal to carry a purse.” Now, for someone who sounds as concerned as he is about being seen as a “sissy,” one would think Mr. Smith would be able to “man up,” as they say, and search for a solution to the problem rather than make excuses. Not only that, by saying men’s refusal to carry a purse entitles them to bigger pockets, he is forgetting that many women are denouncing purses in their outrage over the inequality of the matter. By his own logic, women who refuse to carry a purse should also be entitled to sufficient pockets. He doesn’t stop at gender norms, though. Smith asserts that women don’t need adequate pockets because they are more “innovative” than men: “How many different ways do women carry their things because of small pockets? Besides purses, some women keep their cash in their shoe or string things in their hair. […] Now, do you really think men are creative enough to come up with all those makeshift pockets? Pants pockets are the only place men can successfully store their stuff and not forget where it is.” In some ways, Smith’s claims could be seen as selling men short. Perhaps he’s trying to appease feminist extremists who believe in women’s superiority by downplaying men’s intelligence and memory capabilities. He also ignores the fact that women have put items in their shoes or in their hair because there is no other place to put them. The feminists who are sparking the pocket revolution are not vying for “bigger” or “better” or “deeper” pockets than the ones men have. In the same way as they want the same, equal voting and pay rights which men have, women just want pockets of the same length, width, and depth as men. They want to buy a purse because they choose to carry one or it better suits their personal lifestyles, not because there’s no way to carry phones and wallets without them. The modern purse is a complex and interesting aspect of the pocket conspiracy.
Of course, none of this is to say that purses are pointless, nor that they should be gotten rid of altogether. Some women who tote large purses around more than likely would not be able to fit everything they carry, including “used Kleenexes, aspirin, hair spray, lip balm, dental floss, peppermint Altoids, change cards, Lifesavers, gum wrappers, loose jelly beans, parking validations, expired bus transfers, good luck stones and Walgreen’s receipts” in pockets that were the same size as men’s (Harris 122). Still, fashion designers and manufacturers should cater to the needs of their consumers. Too often, people get stuck in “how things are done” and their eyes glaze over the disadvantages of systems in place. While women complaining about small pockets may seem like a so-called “third-world problem,” the issue is a reflection of the lack of equality and freedom-of-choice minorities strive for every time history repeats itself. The point is, fashion’s blatant lack of adequate pockets restricts each individual woman’s choice in the matter. It should not be debatable that women in America (especially in the year 2018) are entitled to the right to choose to carry a purse or simply keep necessities on their bodies.
Basu, Tanya. “The Gender Politics of Pockets.” The Atlantic, 30 Sept. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/the-gender-politics-of-pockets/380935/.
Diehm, Jan and Amber Thomas. “Women’s Pockets Are Inferior.” The Pudding, Aug. 2018, https://pudding.cool/2018/08/pockets/.
Friedman, Vanessa. “Hot Pockets.” New York Times, 21 Sept. 2018. Science In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A555059572/SCIC?u=nclive&sid=SCIC&xid=d98e3fce.
Harris, Daniel. “The Contents of Women’s Purses: An Accessory in Crisis.” Salmagundi, no.114, Spring 1997, pp. 122-31. ProQuest Central, search.proquest.com/docview/221293542?accountid=15152.
Iyer, Vidya. “Could I Have a Pair of Pockets, Please?” Technique, 21 Aug. 2015,
Laursen, Lucee and Wylliam Smith. “Point/Counterpoint: Why Does Women’s Clothing Have
Smaller Pockets?” The Daily Iowan, 22 Feb. 2018, https://dailyiowan.com/2018/02/22/point-counterpoint-why-does-womens-clothing-have-smaller-pockets/.
“Pockets on Women’s Clothes Matter More Than You Think.” NBC Left Field, 28 June 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/leftfield/video/pockets-on-women-s-clothes-matter-more-than-you-think-1266401347829?v=railb&.
Summers, Chelsea G. “The Politics of Pockets.” Vox. 19 Sept. 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/9/19/12865560/politics-of-pockets-suffragettes-women.
—. “When It Comes To Women’s Pockets, Size Really Does Matter.” The Guardian, 23 Aug. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/womens-pockets-size-jeans-fashion.