Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Inequality is literally stitched into our wardrobes.
“Why would you keep money in your bra?!” my co-worker brayed at me. He was a lovely guy, not generally a brayer, but we were at a crowded bar and this kind of performative bewilderment called for braying.
“Where do you suggest I keep it?” I replied, already guessing at the let-them-eat-cake direction of the conversation. With wearying predictability came the answer, “Er… in your pocket?!”
I briefly wondered what it’s like for so many men to believe, truly believe, that they are surrounded by idiots.
“You think it hasn’t occurred to me that a pocket would be a better place for my money, phone, keys…”
“You keep KEYS in your bra?!”
“It’s all in the placement.”
I handed him his drink and we waded through the crowd to the outside space, and found our group. In social situations I tend to find myself hanging with the tech nerds and here, in the bar just outside the offices of the Guardian was no different: I had lost the other journalists and was once again approaching last call with the developers. Which is to say: I was surrounded by men, all of whom were now hearing from my co-worker that I was probably about to pull a floor lamp out of my bra a la Mary Poppins.
When I explained the reason I didn’t keep my things in my pockets was because I had no pockets (and preferred not to bring a handbag to bars, where so many of them get donated to London’s opportunist thieves), they went straight to the next line on the Let Them Eat Cake song sheet, and assumed my pocketless existence was a result of my poor commercial choices: “Why on earth would you buy a pair of trousers that doesn’t have pockets?”
Sigh. Let them eat cake. Let them take equal pay for equal work. Let them have children without financial punishment, or be childless without social judgment. Let them feel safe on ground-floor apartments. Let them be taken seriously by doctors when describing their pain. And after failing to take all this – all this that’s on offer, like the glorious equal-opportunities buffet that society obviously is – we silly birds go and keep things in our bras. Women should choose garments with pockets, explained the men in this bar.
Let me write that down, guys, thank you. Let them have pockets.
In 2018, the digital publication The Pudding carried out research to prove something women already knew: that even when women’s clothes are graced with the presence of pockets, they are puny versions of the capacious ones men take for granted. They found that in women’s jeans, the front pockets were on average 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than in men’s jeans. Which means even though we buy the same smartphones as men, only 40% of our pockets can accommodate them – even a wallet that is specifically designed to fit in front pockets does not, in more than half of cases, fit into the front pockets of women’s jeans.
Is it because the fashion industry thinks we must have handbags, and therefore the primary use for pockets is to accommodate nothing more than our tiny dainty lady hands? Women know I’m kidding: the only human hand that could fit into the majority of women’s front pockets would be a toddler’s, or possibly Donald Trump’s. We can only assume that on the day Alanis Morrissette wrote the song One Hand in My Pocket she’d made off with her boyfriend’s jeans, or had surmised that the lyric, “And I’ve got four fingers in my pocket/ but only up to the knuckles and the thumb doesn’t get a goddamn look in” wouldn’t have had the same free-spirited, tumbleweed ring to it.
That evening outside the bar, I didn’t bother explaining pocket inequality to my co-workers, not least because the phrase, “Back in medieval times…” isn’t indicative of great pub banter to come.
But “back in medieval times” is where you have to start in the story of how the hell we got here.
It’s not a time characterised by gender equality, the Medieval period. They were still murdering mostly poor, elderly women on the claim that they were witches, for one thing. Married women had no legal right to earnings or property – indeed, they still were property. One thing the genders did have equality on, though, was pockets.
At this point, both sexes carried little bags slung around their waists or suspended from their belts. With urbanisation and the increasing cleverness of thieves, the little bags became concealed under men’s jackets and women’s petticoats, both of which were outfitted with discreet little slits for easy access.
Then, in the late seventeenth century, tailors began sewing pockets right into men’s trousers, coats and waistcoats, but didn’t make the same pocket-migration for women’s clothes. Ladies continued with the bag-under-the-petticoats routine – but by the end of the eighteenth century, waistlines had moved upwards, the billowing skirts had slimmed, and the female silhouette had become more of a column than a bell. In a world where women’s fashion was designed purely for the eye of the beholder, bulging pockets were out. And yet, women still had things to carry.
The solution the fashion industry came up with was, of course, the unflushable turd that is the handbag. Did you see they sent a probe to Mars? Yes, I watched it on my phone, which I keep in my cumbersome-to-carry, easy-to-snatch handbag. I do not know a single woman who hasn’t had a handbag stolen, or stolen from, which is the very reason the medieval waist-bags migrated under the clothes in the first place. The safety and security women were afforded back in the days they could reasonably expected to be burned as a witch when they were no longer fuckable are still denied to women who could feasibly expect go to space and get paid for it.
The handbags deemed acceptable for women in the late eighteenth century were, you won’t be surprised to learn, insipid little things, barely big enough to hold a vial of their tears at having to put up with this shit. Which fitted neatly into another patriarchal wet dream: if women wanted stuff, they also needed men to hold onto it for them. Which meant women couldn’t even travel unaccompanied.
A lack of functional pockets also made the women living in the time of the French Revolution less of a threat: they couldn’t move freely through public spaces, perhaps with naughty revolutionary material tucked into a private space that was theirs, and theirs alone (note here a classic example of the Schrödinger’s-cat thought process of sexists, the high/low status we embody: a woman is of course weaker and stupider and all-round inferior, but even by carrying a leaflet she may secretly control, subjugate and overthrow the men. Male supremacy is surely the flimsiest power that has ever gone to somebody’s head).
In 1899, the author of a New York Times article was probably trying to be tongue-in-cheek when he wrote the following line, but the truth of it stings like a key in the bra: “As we become more civilized, we need more pockets. No pocketless people has ever been great since pockets were invented, and the female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless.”
I’ve made a lot of jokes in this essay. That’s what I do when something is painful – and again, the angle on the key really is crucial. The pain comes from facing the reality of why women don’t get pockets, and what it says about how we’re seen, our place in the world.
The form of a pocket is its function, so when yours systematically have a punier form and therefore lesser, little or no practical function, you have to ask why. The fashion industry certainly isn’t shy about selling us things that need to be carried around on top of the usual wallet-phone-keys combo: mirrors, combs, makeup – not to mention the stacks of cash needed to buy it all. So why have we been allocated less, when our need is at least the same?
In 1954, the designer Christian Dior stated that, “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration”. And with that, the fashion industry said the quiet part out loud: that even though our practical needs are the same as men’s, our job of being decorated – and, indeed, of being decoration – takes precedent. Big pockets full of the trappings of our real lives would undermine that much more pressing concern: how we look. The slinky, slim-fit silhouette of our bodies. The fantasy, which cannot be spoiled by the bulge of day-to-day necessities. The onlooker is still somehow the protagonist in our lives, and we’re not supposed to remind them of real life, much less the icky suggestion that we have our own. Ew. That would be like a stripper narrating her lap-dance with a rundown of her nephew’s kidney issues and her thoughts on global economic relief. Pipe down, Diamond, that’s not what you’re for.
It is painful to realise that the needs and practicalities of our daily existence matter less than how pleasing we are to the eye, and even more painful to realise that this is not news – so much as to almost be a mundane detail of our lives. That we received the message that men are here to do things and women are here to be looked at – both oh-so-tacitly and oh-so-loud-and-clear – from the moment we were out of onesies, and every day since.
It is painful to realise that even now, centuries later, after we have proven ourselves again and again to be intelligent, fully-formed humans with purpose and drive and ambition and ability, the idea remains. That our contributions to the world still aren’t as valued or celebrated as the mind-numbing task of being things to look at – an undertaking that barely requires sentience, much less the humanity we’re nonetheless saddled with. That this world doesn’t belong to us, any more than your house belongs to the painting hanging in the hall. That apparently, as women, our form is our only function.
Designers of the fashion industry, as furious as we are about this, you can still make up for it. Frankly, you owe us. My humble proposition is: you take all the fabric you saved from years of the “cold shoulder” trend, and you fashion those missing patches into pockets on every goddamn garment you make, until doing so becomes second nature to the lot of you. I don’t care about my silhouette, and since I’m paying, neither should you. I’m serious. I want pockets on my sweaters and skirts, I want them lining my fleeces and cardigans, I want them dangling under the hems of my denim hotpants. I want trousers I could use to shoplift martini glasses – I won’t shoplift martini glasses, to be clear; but I want that choice to be down to my moral compass, not your stingy stitching. I want to be able to carry a coyote in my coat and a jackhammer in my jacket. Give me pockets, or give me… pockets. That’s the second choice.
Just give me goddamn pockets.
Erica Buist is a writer, lecturer and journalist, mostly for the Guardian. She lives in London and speaks five languages, mostly to her dog. Her first book This Party's Dead, in which she travels to seven of the world's death festivals, is out now.