Pockets of privilege: The loss and reclamation of pockets by women
“I remember this one time when I kept pushing my mobile in my pocket and it kept slipping out… the pocket of my jeans wasn’t big enough,” grumbles 35-year-old graphic designer Mohini Gupta. “I was at a party and I was worried that if I put it in my bag I wouldn’t hear the ring if someone called, and I needed my hands free. Why can’t they make jeans pockets bigger?” she questions.
What’s worse than a dress without pockets? A dress with pockets that are too small to be used. And women have had to suffer both for ages. When Apple increased the size of the Iphone you would expect users to rejoice the bigger screen size, wouldn’t you? Easier on the eyes, you’d say. Not completely. The launch of the bigger Iphone 6 and 6Plus in 2014 saw a slew of newspaper and magazine articles on how the phone was “unpocketable”, especially for women. Yes, Gupta’s grouse about the “smallness” of her pockets wasn’t imagined. As a blog post on clothing company Kirrin Finch’s website claims, “the pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets”. No wonder a search for ‘women’s pockets’ on the all knowing Google – throws up more lamentations on the lack of pockets in women’s clothes, than their styles or designs.
Well not anymore. “Pockets have become very common in today’s where every woman wants comfort along with looks,” agrees Komal Goel, co-founder, The Loom – a fashion website of curated designs. “There are designers, like Masaba Gupta, who have introduced pockets in sarees too,” she says. About 70 per cent of clothes on The Label Life site feature pockets. “We target women-on-the-go; our clothes are of the desk-to-dinner kinds. Pockets are a necessity,” says Sonam Shah,head of merchandising. “It is only when the fabric is such that it will not support weight that we don’t put pockets. And then we clients requesting for customisations.”
Traditionally, the omission of pockets in women’s clothes was not by chance. “For one, it was assumed possibly that as women carried handbags they would serve the purpose. But fashion for women was also considered less from the perspective of comfort and utility,” says designer David Abraham, though he adds that he and his partner Rakesh Thakore (of Abraham and Thakore) have always put pockets in all their designs.
Yet, women were not always deprived of this very useful part of an attire.Fashion historians trace the loss of women’s pockets, and the increasing dependency on handbags, to the late 18th-early 19th century. Before that women’s pockets were separate items tied under their petticoats and accessed through slits in the gown and petticoats. It was the rise of the slim, form-fitting gowns that cost women their pockets.
Enter, the handbag, the size and style of which changed with the years. But pockets, once done away with, remained missing till the late 19th century when some “independent” women began efforts to reclaim pockets. For most women though the comfort of pockets remained elusive till the 20th century, when the outbreak of the world wars forced women to take up the men’s jobs and into men’s clothes, as the men went away to fight. But the joy was short-lived. In post war years, as women continued to wear pants, designers put their heads together to fashion something more womanly for them, and slimmer silhouettes again meant doing away with pockets. In 1954, fashion great Christian Dior reportedly said that “men have pockets to keep things in, women for decorations.” In India, the idea of pockets in traditional women’s wear – kurtas or saris – was even more alien.
So what helps this return of pockets now? “Women’s roles have changed drastically now and their expectations of practicality in the clothes they wear has had an influence on these changes,” says Abraham.
Charu Sharma, director Fabindia, recalls that when the brand put pockets in their salwars for the first time – some 15 years ago – it was a chance complaint by her daughter which had given her the idea. “She would complaint that it would be so much easier if she had a pocket to keep the change or pass key in, rather than having to pull out her purse all the time”. This season, many more of the Fabindia dresses and skirts have pockets.
But it is difficult to do away with centuries of fashion diktat. For one, “there are still a lot of womens’ garments out there without pockets,” says Abraham. And the ones that are there don’t always serve the purpose, as Gupta points out. The result? Many of the women customers at Fabindia continue to pick up men’s kurtas for the roomier pockets, says Sharma.
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