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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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LIFESTYLES

As shopping habits change, Ottawa targets credit card swipe fees

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The federal government is taking aim at credit-card transaction fees as shifting shopping habits resulting from pandemic lockdowns have substantially driven up costs for many small merchants.

The budget released this week promises the government will launch consultations aimed at lowering the average charges — known as interchange fees — paid by merchants every time a customer pays with a credit card.

Though federal officials plan to engage with stakeholders, including credit-card issuers and merchants, about possible changes, Monday’s budget also raises the threat of legislation to regulate fees “if necessary.”

This is the third time in less than seven years that the federal government has pressured credit-card companies to lower transaction fees, which vary between retailers, types of cards and payment methods. In 2014, there was an agreement reached with Visa Canada and Mastercard Canada to lower average fees to 1.5 per cent. Then in 2018 a five-year pact was struck that included voluntary commitments to lower average fees to 1.4 per cent, starting in 2020. (American Express struck a separate deal with Ottawa.)

But COVID-19 has rapidly altered consumers’ spending patterns, creating pressure to revisit that deal. Many of the interchange fees that were reduced applied solely to payments made in stores. As public-health restrictions have forced stores to limit access or close, fewer customers are swiping, tapping, or paying in cash. As a result, businesses are bearing the brunt of higher transaction fees charged for online purchases – unless they pass those costs on to customers by raising prices.

“The pandemic has been a huge driver of credit-card interchange [fees] as people have dropped cash and have moved online,” Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said in an interview. “It is a rapidly growing cost and was a rapidly growing cost even prior to the pandemic.”

The interchange fees paid by Christina Kotiadis, co-owner of Toronto gift store Lemon & Lavender, have gone way up during the pandemic. She built an online store for the first time to process e-commerce orders, and more customers who visit the store are tapping cards to make contactless payments. She also bought a mobile terminal to take payments anywhere in the store, or at the front door, which charges higher fees than the store’s plug-in terminal. For health reasons, she allows customers to pay with cards even for small purchases and absorbs the added costs.

“I refuse to raise prices. I don’t feel good about it. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and I don’t want to raise the fee because they don’t want to use cash,” she said.

Before the pandemic, about 60 per cent of payments at independent grocery stores were made with credit cards, and the rest with cash or debit cards, according to Gary Sands, a senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Now, more than 90 per cent of purchases are with credit cards as online ordering and curbside pickups become more popular, and the resulting interchange fees are adding up.

“It impacts prices, it impacts the ability of small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

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LIFESTYLES

Ottawa considers taking action against ‘predatory lenders’

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Ottawa will consider lowering the maximum interest rate to stop the “predatory lending” of outfits that make high-interest loans, which anti-poverty advocates say have exploited Canadians during the pandemic.

In Monday’s budget, the federal government announced plans to launch consultations on lowering the “criminal rate of interest,” the maximum annualized interest rate for credit allowed under the federal Criminal Code.

For instalment loans — longer-term credit with high interest — lenders can charge up to 60 per cent annual interest under the usury rules.

Payday loans — high-interest loans that are typically due two weeks later — are exempt from federal rules under a 2007 amendment, if provinces have their own regulations for payday lenders, which all now do. 

Many low- or moderate-income Canadians rely on high-interest, short-term loans to make ends meet or for unanticipated emergencies, leaving them stuck in a cycle of debt, the budget states. 

Anti-poverty advocates have zeroed in on companies like Money Mart, Easy Financial, and Cash Money, accusing them of misleading advertising, not being forthright about the strings attached, and pushing borrowers to take out larger loans at the highest interest rates possible. 

They say the practices are continuing during COVID, when more Canadians than ever are facing financial hardship.

“They’re thriving, because they’re taking advantage of people,” said Donna Bordon, a member of the anti-poverty group, ACORN Canada. “People are afraid of losing their homes, so they borrow money from these places.”

The consultations are a “first step” in tackling predatory lending, Bordon said, adding she hopes they include more than industry representatives, who will sharply oppose any changes.

Despite low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, poorer borrowers are more likely to lack the requirements to access safer loans from traditional banks. Instead, they seek quick cash from payday lenders, despite the risk of falling into debt they can’t escape.

In Ontario, for example, payday lenders can charge $15 in interest for every $100 over a two-week period — equal to an annualized interest rate of 391 per cent. 

Last July, the Ontario government capped the interest rate that lenders can charge on defaulted payday loans at 2.5 per cent per month. It also set a maximum fee of $25 that lenders can charge for dishonoured or bounced cheques, or pre-authorized debits.

In 2019, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had taken out payday loans in the previous year. The percentage was even higher for Indigenous people, and low-income and single-parent households.

Last month, NDP finance critic Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill to lower the maximum interest rate to 30 per cent, and to remove the exception for provinces that regulate payday lenders — measures ACORN supports.

The Canadian Consumer Finance Association, which represents payday lenders, said in a statement that while it’s still reviewing Monday’s budget, it’s opposed to lowering the interest-rate limit.

“Instalment loans are long-, not short-term loans, and they provide an important source of credit for many Canadians who cannot access credit elsewhere,” the organization said.

“Any reduction to the federal maximum interest rate will result in removal of access to credit for those Canadians with lower credit scores who previously qualified at the current rates. The government should not take any action that results in denial of credit to Canadians, or forces borrowers to access credit from illegal, unlicensed lenders.”

A survey of 376 ACORN members published by the group last February found 40 per cent of respondents were turned down by a traditional bank before taking out a high-interest loan. Seventeen per cent said they’re now unable to make repayments due to COVID-19.

The federal government should seek ways to provide alternative lines of credit to low-income Canadians, such as mandating banks to offer lower-interest loans, Bordon said.

Besides setting up a complaints process for consumer lending that’s stronger than the provinces’ systems, it should also consider postal banking for rural areas and small towns, she added.

The ACORN survey found that 70 per cent of its survey respondents had once turned to payday loans. Forty-five per cent had taken out instalment loans, an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when only 11 per cent said they’d taken out such loans. 

ACORN represents low- to moderate-income Canadians. Sixty per cent of its survey respondents earn less than $30,000 a year.

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LIFESTYLES

Federal budget 2021: Ottawa ties end of financial supports to completion of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

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The federal government will extend its business and income support programs until the country’s vaccination campaign is complete, but their subsidy levels will start to drop before the deadline for all Canadians to get their shots.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget, tabled Monday, sets Sept. 25 as the end date for the direct business and personal income supports the government introduced in response to the pandemic. That is in line with the end-of-summer deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set for the completion of Canada’s vaccine rollout. It’s widely expected Canadians could also be sent back to the polls around that time.

The government proposes spending $15.1-billion more to extend the emergency support programs until September and create a new subsidy, which Ms. Freeland called a “lifeline” for Canadians and businesses in her speech to the House of Commons.

The budget also, for the first time, pegged the cost of Canada’s vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion; however, officials were not able to provide any details on that number, including how much has been already spent or allocated.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it was encouraged by the extension of the business supports during the pandemic and cautioned against their hasty withdrawal. “The government must ensure that support is not being removed too early and that the level of support does not decrease too quickly,” president Perrin Beatty said in a statement.

On Monday, neither Ms. Freeland nor federal officials were able to explain why the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, Lockdown Support and the Canada Recovery Benefit will all decrease before the vaccination program is expected to be complete. The government also did not say whether the decrease is based on metrics such as COVID-19 case counts or vaccination rates.

“No one knows for sure what the course of the virus and new variants will be, and that is why we are prepared to act further and to further extend the supports should the course of the virus require that,” Ms. Freeland said at a news conference.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit are also set to end in September. If the pandemic gets worse, the government will introduce legislation that will allow it to extend those programs until Nov. 20.

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