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‘Manifestation of patriarchy’: The surprising feminist history of women’s pockets

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Brooklyn Neustaeter, CTVNews.ca Staff


Published Thursday, December 20, 2018 6:22AM EST

A recent study has revealed that women’s pockets are nearly 50 per cent smaller than men’s pockets, with industry experts citing the topic as a feminist movement that goes back for centuries.

Women’s clothing rarely had functional pockets yet men’s garments were given them as early as the late 1600s in a silent solidification of sexism that even now still exists in fashion.

“The size difference in pockets perpetuates and reinforces gender inequality and is a manifestation of patriarchy,” said Chair of Ryerson School of Fashion Ben Barry in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

U.S. website The Pudding measured the pockets on 80 pairs of men’s and women’s jeans with the same waist size and found that women’s front jean pockets are 48 per cent shorter and 6.5 per cent narrower than men’s.

The study — released in August 2018 — revealed that the biggest front pockets for women are found in Abercrombie, American Eagle and skinny H&M jeans. However, the study says the brands were still relatively smaller than the equivalent pockets in the men’s jeans. These brands did not respond to requests for comment from CTVNews.ca.

“Women’s pockets tend to emphasize fashion over function. How [women] look in jeans seems to be more important than what [they] can carry in them,” said Jan Diehm, one of the journalist engineers behind the study, in an email interview with CTVNews.ca from San Antonio, Texas.

Toronto-based fashion designer Hayley Elsaesser says she tries to design without gender in mind to create garments — such as overalls, pants and jackets — for everyone that are both attractive and functional.

“I hate that fashion is often all about trendiness and only [focuses] on the aesthetic of clothing rather than the practical aspect of it,” said Elsaesser. “It’s been engrained in society that women have to be beautiful and sexy and cater to the male gaze, while men can just be men… But it’s super easy to just put a pocket in a side seam.”

Size guide

According to The Pudding’s study, a pocket is only as good as what can fit inside it and the size disparity assumes gender roles in limiting what items a woman can stow in her pockets versus a man — if anything at all.

“It’s assuming that women will wear purses and men don’t, so they have to have pockets because they’re busy guys,” said Elsaesser. “It [implies that] women aren’t as busy so they can carry a purse around.”

The study found that only 40 per cent of women’s front pockets can fit the iPhone X, 20 per cent a Samsung Galaxy and only 5 per cent the Google Pixel. Less than half of women’s front pockets can fit a wallet specifically designed for front pockets and while 100 per cent of men’s pockets could handle the average male hand, only 10 per cent of women’s could fit a woman’s hand.

Back pockets were about the same between genders with women’s only 5 per cent shorter and 2 per cent narrower than men’s.

Diehm says the equality in back pockets does not make up for women’s clothing having little or no front pockets or worse, having two seams stitched together to create a fake pocket.

“It’s a much more layered problem than saying ‘men are bigger’,” said Diehm. “It is ridiculous that we don’t even have the means to carry something as essential as a tampon on us without an external bag.”

Not being able to keep belongings in a pant pocket may seem like a minor inconvenience but for women it is a controversy they have faced for centuries.

Sexist beginnings

According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, women traditionally didn’t have pockets because they did not have their own money to put in them.

Both men and women had bags tied to their belts during the medieval era, allowing them to carry any essentials around hidden from thieves. Clothes had little slits on the side through which the pouch was easily accessed.

In the 1700s, men did away with pouches and pockets were permanently sewn into their garments. Women’s clothing did not make the same move. It was considered unladylike for a woman to hide her hands — except in gloves — so they continued to use the hidden pouches.

The French Revolution brought on slimmer silhouettes, making these pouches unable to fit under clothing. The London Spectator previously reported that the common thought was that women “had four external bulges already — two breasts and two hips — and a money pocket inside their dress would make an ungainly fifth.”

Reticules and chatelaines — small, ornate purses — were introduced in what is now considered the earliest form of a handbag.

Practical pockets were first sewn into women’s clothing at the end of the 19th century thanks in part to campaigns led by early feminists of the Rational Dress Society in London, England that fought for female clothes to be more functional.

However a societal expectation emerged after the First and Second World Wars that women were to dress more feminine and do away with the pocket-adorned clothes they had been wearing while the men were away. If a 20th century woman wanted to bring anything with her, the only option was to carry a bag.

Famous fashion designer Christian Dior further cemented the patriarchy of pockets in 1954 when he allegedly told U.K. journalist Paul Johnson that “men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”

Pockets for men and handbags for women became symbolic of the inequality between the sexes and the struggle for women’s equal rights.

“Fashion is prime example of how we police and regulate bodies and part of [that] is policing and regulating gender,” said Barry. “Fashion does that by creating this very strict binary of masculine and feminine [that starts] when people walk into a store and are immediately directed towards the men’s or women’s section.”

Gender Politics

From full petticoats and money pouches to the age of skinny jeans, pockets continue to be a contentious object for women.

Women who answer a compliment about their clothing with “Thank you! It has pockets!” reveals how impractical pockets are for women and how long they have been denied them.

Barry says pockets are seen as personal spaces meant to keep important items close to the body and denying a woman that while forcing her to carry a bag reinforces that she is different from a man and cannot have his luxuries.

“If you have a bag, you have another item to purchase that is required to perform femininity,” said Barry.

“Fashion has been defined as a feminine pursuit and as an activity required by women rather than by men. Men have the opportunity to focus on their careers because fashion has not been associated with them in terms of performing proper or appropriate masculinity,” he continued.

Diehm said she has not seen any change in the major clothing brands mentioned in the study but says she has heard from smaller companies including Radian Jeans and Quokka Pockets that claim they are working to tackle the pocket problem.

Barry says the fashion industry needs to be actively critical of its practices to break down these gender binaries it has constructed.

“Pockets are such a routine, everyday practice that it goes unquestioned,” said Barry. “Exposing why women’s pockets are so much smaller than men’s… helps us understand the ways in which gender inequality is perpetuated in everyday life through something as seemingly mundane and routine as a pair of pants.”

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Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

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Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

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OC Transpo’s monthly bus pass one of the most expensive fares in Canada

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The cheapest adult monthly bus fare is in Charlottetown, at $58.50 a month. A monthly bus pass in Whitehorse costs $62 a month.

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