An historical reenactment of medieval bags. Photo: DEA / C. BALOSSINI / Getty
When shopping for women’s jeans, how many times have you found yourself disappointed with the pockets of the garment? They are either fake or too small to serve the purpose of being a pocket. As women, we all are also familiar with the joy of finding a big enough pocket in a garment while shopping.
While men enjoy the privileges of fully functional pockets (which enhances their mobility), we women have to drag a bag along (which differs in sizes depending on the occasion). While this all looks so perfectly normal and justified, at least history says that it isn’t as simple as it seems.
Ill-functioning pockets in women’s garments are not only a debate about sexism but it also has a highly political background. Going back to the genealogy of pockets, in medieval times, both men and women tied small bags or fanny bags to their waistline or suspended them from their belts. They were fully functional bags and helped people carry things from tools to food.
AS PEOPLE, WOMEN NEEDED TO CARRY THINGS AND HENCE THE PURSE WAS BORN.
Over time, as the world grew smarter and criminals became more clever, people stopped tying their bags outside their clothing as that would attract the criminals. Men and women started hiding their external pockets (read bags) under a layer of clothing. The outfits were fitted with little slits that allowed them access to their tied-on fanny bags.
It was in the seventeenth century that pockets found their way as a permanent part of men’s clothing. Trousers, waistcoats and coats had legitimate pockets sewn onto them, while women still had to carry bags tied to their waists hidden under their clothing. While there was hope that pockets would find their way to women’s clothing as well, the French Revolution managed to dismantle that as well.
Wide skirts which indicated class privilege had to undergo a change in the eighteenth century. Skirts were pulled close to the body, highlighting the ‘natural waist’ so that the silhouette thinned to a slender column. This neoclassical look for women had no room for pockets or hidden fanny bags as that would disturb the fall of the silhouette. But as people, women needed to carry things, hence the purse was born and till today it has managed to survive and thrive.
THIS FREEDOM OF POCKETS BECAME FRIGHTENING FOR SOCIETY AND THEY TOOK AWAY THESE HIDDEN POCKETS AND WOMEN’S FREEDOM TO ACCESS PUBLIC SPACES.
Women and pockets got their political ground from the fact that their pockets were private spaces which they carried to public spaces. During turbulent times, such as the French revolution, this freedom of pockets became frightening for society and they took away these hidden pockets and hence, their freedom – to access public spaces.
At the peak of the 20th Century, the pockets in women’s dresses reached a major revolution. The Rational Dress Society introduced attributes for the perfect dress for women (which emphasized on freedom of movement) and did away with uneasy clothing (such as corsets). It was during this time that pockets were finally included in women’s clothing.
As long as they don’t make pockets in women’s clothing, women would be relying on bags. This is basically sustaining a whole industry (bags) by excluding pockets from women’s clothing. I recently saw some Hollywood as well as Bollywood celebrities flaunting fanny bags in lieu of pockets. Hark back to medieval times much?
If you are thinking that I am against bags, then you have missed the whole point. All I mean to say is that especially in the case of women, there are always these trends regarding various things which come and go.
Now we observe a lot of outfits (even dresses) made with pockets. We need to be aware that these ‘trends’ might have a political and historical background with people fighting for and against it. These are not mere trends but evolutions with socio-political context always.
A few days back, I asked the same question to my grandmother that why do men have the privilege of having big, functional pockets and women don’t. “Men need to carry money, women have their men to carry their money” is what she said. Women are smart and strong enough to earn and carry their own money and they have been doing that for years. All they need are functional pockets, period.