The gender politics of pockets

Chanel started the trend in the 1930s, and this season, pockets were all over the catwalks again. But they signify so much more than just a mere fashion trend, says Annmarie O’Connor

When it comes to women’s clothing, nothing induces envy quite like a decent set of pockets. Instead we get small pockets, flap pockets, stitched pockets, fake pockets (aka ‘fockets’). Real deal pockets that can hold more than a fingertip or a credit card – not so much. It’s not a big ask. After all, if men can have them, why can’t we?

And therein lies the rub. Discreetly hidden or loud and proud, their presence is more than a mere practicality; it’s a statement of intent. With them, woman have hands-free flexibility; without them, we have handbags. Granted, arm candy may be sweet but there’s something equally savoury about walking breezily, hand in pocket down the street.

Pockets have proven their unisex appeal since medieval times. Early versions of the pocket hung from waist-tied belts, a forerunner of the divisive fanny pack. Pattern-making soon accommodated internal pockets in menswear whereas women continued to require wearing pockets about their person, albeit underneath layers of petticoats. Inconvenient when in need of the loo; handy when harbouring snacks and a needlepoint kit, or indeed, concealing them from thieves.

Pockets were further championed in the late 18th century by the Rational Dress Movement when first wave feminists swapped tight-laced corsets, empire line silhouettes (think Jane Austen heroines) and dainty reticules (a precursor to the modern mala) for functional garments like pocketed bloomers.

Social mobility may have demanded function but social status relied heavily on fashion. Take the 19th century chatelaine – a decorative waist-tied belt hook fitted with chains that held household items like scissors, keys and thimbles but, more importantly, came to represent personal agency and dominion of the household – a symbol of prestige.

HANDS UP: A look from the Rejina Pyo Autumn/Winter collection 2017.

Come the 20th century, the mobility of women in the workplace dictated a different set of sartorial norms as pockets regained their cache. Elsa Schiaparelli fitted her wartime ‘cash and carry’ collection with large patch pockets – ostensibly for carrying air raid masks and ration cards; while Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent translated necessity into less binary terms, parlaying the ease of menswear onto the female form. The result? The iconic four-pocket Chanel jacket and YSL ‘Le Smoking’ suit – emblems of emancipation for the modern woman.

Rumour has it, Saint Laurent himself encouraged his models to catwalk hand in pocket so as to affect a self-assured swagger. Could this social body language be that which endears women to the perfect pocket – the ability to evoke both mood and attitude?

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Sonya Lennon, co-designer at Lennon Courtney thinks so. “Pockets for women are so much more about how we present ourselves, and how we stand, and how we look in control. We like our bags and we like our receptacles to be the external and when we design with pockets, we know that women who are going to use them are going to use them for their stance and not to carry.”

Not only do bags bear most of the carrying burden but they’ve become badges of identity in and of themselves – a way to find one’s tribe in the increasingly fickle fashion jungle. If handbags are, indeed, an external symbol of status, then pockets are most definitely one of internal rebellion.

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Think about it: there’s something subtly subversive about the pocketed stance. What it conceals, it also reveals. Whereas hands on the hips asserts a stance of power, the pocket posture implies it has nothing to prove.

Take the peerless pantsuit saunter of silver screen scions like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn or the carefree elbow crook of Anjelica Huston – women who, comfortable in their own skin, defy definition. Add in Victoria Beckham’s newly acquired flat-shoed, perma-pocketed stance (a far cry from her Girl Power days) and the purposeful appeal is evident. It’s this seemingly casual but slightly calculated attitude that makes women willing to trade a vital organ in exchange for the pocket posture.

“If a man didn’t want to utilise his pocket to casualise his demeanour, he could even go cowboy and use his belt loops – hang himself off something in a standing position - and women haven’t really had that and I think there’s an element of a nonchalant masculinity about a pocket that allows a woman to hang herself off herself and look much more in control,” says Lennon.

Dries Van Noten’s collection at the Autum/Winter 2017-2018 ready-to-wear collection in Paris .

Indeed, this offhand ease found ample expression in the spring/summer 17 collections from oversized pockets and pouch belts at Marni, to slouchy paperbag waists at Stella McCartney; while the autumn/winter 17 offering of slouchy separates and pantsuits (Dries Van Noten, Prada, Rejina Pyo and Jil Sander amongst others) demonstrate a more considered confidence. Despite this seeming equanimity, not all pockets are created equal.

Despite the obvious shift in mood, fake, miserable and utterly useless pockets are still at large, so much so that the #wewantpockets movement has created its own pocket of resistance (pun intended) on social media. Stylist Natasha Crowley shares this pain.

“For me and, indeed, for a lot of my clients, a good pocket can be a deal breaker when it comes to buying a piece,” she explains.

“Although a pocket doesn’t lend itself to all items of clothing but where a decent pocket would be able to fit then why not add it? Ideally, I would like to, at least, be able to fit my phone comfortably in my pocket when I’m working. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.”

Prada embraced the pocket at Autumn/Winter 2017/2018 Fashion Week in Milan.

By extension, how crestfallen have many of us been to discover our pockets are, in fact, ‘fockets’ (slang for fake pockets) - not the ones that are temporarily sewn shut but rather the fraudulent flaps that do little other than get our hopes up only to make us feel cheated. It’s the sartorial equivalent of a broken promise.

Design dictates aside, the pocket debate continues to highlight something fundamental in the fabric of women’s fashion. Handbags may finish an outfit but pockets – they start the conversation. “It’s got pockets?” you ask. Wait ‘til I tell you!

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