The answer: Pockets, like most apparel, have a gendered history. The twist: It has only recently trickled down to most children’s clothing — a development that has parents, including famous ones such as Reese Witherspoon, as well as small retailers, using the Twitter hashtags #PocketsForGirls and #girlsdeservepockets, both of which have generated considerable buzz online.
Lack of access to pockets is nothing new for the wealthy Western women held up as paragons of femininity. After all, they lost theirs over 200 years ago. But for much of history, working-class women, older women and girls had storage space in aprons, overalls and smock-like pinafores. That sartorial separateness evaporated in recent decades, with girls’ clothing increasingly mirroring their pocketless mothers’. The lack of pockets not only restricts girls’ ability to explore and discover, it also signals a limited view of what they can and ought to do. That should be unacceptable in 2020. To empower women, we’re going to need to give girls their pockets back.
But first, the backstory on “little bags,” the rough translation of the Anglo-French poketes. Throughout much of the 18th century, women’s pockets functioned like a travel money belt does today: as a sack attached to a string wrapped around one’s waist and tucked under a layer of clothing. When voluminous skirts reigned in polite society before the French Revolution, pockets were hung between sets of petticoats, with slits cut through the top layer for access. One of the only private spaces available to women of the day, the bags safeguarded everything from needlework supplies and beauty products to snacks, snuffboxes and flasks — not to mention cash.
But when the closer-fitting styles on display in any Jane Austen adaptation gained ascendancy in the 1790s, pockets couldn’t be worn without creating bulges. Women were left with reticules, tiny over-the-arm purses. Once that happened, “If money bestowed the means for action and power, women’s limited pockets … were ill-equipped for its enjoyment,” writes historian Barbara Burman in the essay “Pocketing the Difference.”
Meanwhile, men enjoyed pockets sewn into their trousers, often tucking a hand inside one as an expression of “bodily confidence and presence,” Burman writes. Of course, that wasn’t a gesture allowed all men, nor is it today, reminds Clare Mullaney who, in the Atlantic, positioned the killings of Philando Castile and Tamir Rice as the most recent evidence of the social significance conveyed by “Who is allowed a pocket, and what can one carry [in it]?”
Throughout the 20th century, women repeatedly reclaimed their pockets only to find them again sacrificed at the altar of the sleek lines that best track corporeal form. The April 1939 issue of Vogue made clear that style dictated rules for women’s clothes. Female pants needed to be “well-cut and well-creased” — which meant smaller, often sewn-shut pockets, if any. (After all, a well-to-do woman could rely on her husband to carry things outside the home — or use a pocketbook, since there’d be no need to keep her hands free for opening doors or, gasp, working.) World War II, with its flock of women into the workplace, changed that. The group of women now iconified by Rosie the Riveter wore men’s slacks with ample pockets, reported Ariana Tobin for Marketplace.
But after the war, it was back to normal. Christian Dior made the message explicit in 1954: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”
The second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s produced more functional pockets for more women, but the increasing dominance of the “thin ideal” led designers to jettison women’s pockets as impediments to a lean appearance. (Some argue designers also rationed pockets to sell more handbags.)
While “girls’ clothes for school or dressy occasions” tended to track these trends in the 20th century when it came to pockets, or the lack thereof, says Jo B. Paoletti, author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America,” girls’ informal clothing did not.
As late as the 1980s, children’s daily play clothes remained far less gendered than adult garb, as evidenced, according to Paoletti, by a 1964 Sears catalogue showing virtually identical pocketed pants for boys and girls. But in the past few decades, girls’ clothing changed, becoming more feminine — almost cartoonishly so — with ruffles, frills and delicate fabrics, and, like adult women’s clothing, few or no pockets.
Some blame a backlash against second-wave feminism among adults that increased gender rigidity and saw female children as nascent women rather than kids. Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” has said the “girl power” component of third-wave feminism is at least partially to blame, with girls in the 1990s freed to “choose” traditional femininity.
The newly stark difference between clothing marketed to boys and girls is noticed by kids, says Sharon Burns Choksi. She founded Girls Will Be in 2013 after her 3-year-old asked, “Why do boys get all the cool stuff?” Beginning with a 2014 Kickstarter campaign “for girls who don’t like shorty shorts or a skinny fit,” Choksi’s company included pockets on all shorts with marketing materials reading: “Not teeny pockets. Not faux pockets. But pockets big enough to actually use.” Girls Will Be focused on the message “nothing is only for boys,” from colors and graphics to fits that maximize mobility and comfort — and pockets. It’s a stance that makes sense in light of neuro and social science research failing to prove meaningful innate gender differences before puberty and increasing awareness of identities outside the gender binary.
Other companies have followed similar paths: While pockets weren’t the initial focus for Princess Awesome, eventually founder Rebecca Melsky and her partner Eva St. Clair “realized that really empowering girls also meant giving them more pockets.” Now, any Princess Awesome product “that goes on the bottom half of a kid needs to have pockets.”
These companies and their missions are important, because not having pockets limits girls’ ability to experience. Not only do pockets free a child’s hands to investigate and accomplish, they also broadcast the need and right to do so to both wearer and viewer alike. (Contrast a 2012 study showing that girls who wore sexualized clothing were seen as less intelligent, competent, determined and capable.) Or, more accurately, it’s the contrast of the presence and absence of pockets in different kids’ clothing that sends a two-part message: Only men need functionality, and girls should learn to be women as early as possible.
In response to the hashtag #girlsdeservepockets, parents explained the many reasons their daughters need pockets. One commenter said: “My 9-year-old always has a small notebook and golf pencil in her pockets. She says you never know when you have to write down something important.” Others told stories about kids who resorted to alternative repositories. One mother found five beads squeezed in her 3-year-old’s right shoe alongside her foot. “It hurt,” the girl reportedly said, “but how else was I supposed to carry them to tinkergarten?” During the back-and-forth, parents and children alike complained about the mental burden of having to lug around a purse, remembering where it sits and wondering whether it’s secure.
If pockets facilitate privacy, independence, confidence and utility — that is, physical, intellectual and psychological freedom — it would appear there’s a disconnect between the “You can do anything” line fed to modern girls and the more powerful messaging they’re packaged in each day. A representative of Gap, one of the largest children’s retailers, declined formal comment but emailed: “Our girls jeans all have real pockets except for the girls jegging (denim legging) which is based on the overall design which also mimics our women’s version of this silhouette.” And that, these parents, scholars and entrepreneurs contend, is precisely the problem.
Both women’s and girls’ clothing need to have pockets to be as functional as boys’ and men’s. That they don’t and aren’t is attributable to systemic sexism that values a woman’s appearance over what she can accomplish, regardless of her age.