The Surprising History Of Pockets

They’re more than just practical! Check out the surprising history of pockets, here below

By Diane Small

When you leave the house, where’s your essential stuff? In your handbag, right? It seems almost inconceivable to leave home without it. But from the 17th century to the late 19th century, most women had no such thing. Instead, they’d put their stuff in pockets. It sounds easy peasy, but actually it was far from it.

If you look at women’s fashion from the era, for example, you’d doubt there were any pockets in women’s clothing whatsoever. And that’s because rather than being built into their clothes, they were usually worn underneath their petticoats. Getting into them was quite a mission. And what was in them was quite unexpected.

It may sound kind of dull at first glance. But the history of pockets is actually pretty surprising!

The Surprising History Of Pockets

history of pockets

Damn, but women used to wear a lot of clothing back in the 1700s! You think a burqa is oppressive? That was as comfy as pyjamas compared to the 18th century woman’s garb!

You’d start with your shift, and your garters and stockings, and maybe some bloomers. Essentially, these were long pants that acted as underwear. (They weren’t so popular though. Why? Having to pull them down made toilet stuff harder!)

Then, you’d put on your ‘stay’. This was a corset-like garment that served as a kind of back and breast support. It was made of thick material or leather, and had laces that you’d pull tight to give you a ‘wasp’ waist. You’d add a skirt called a petticoat over the shift. In colder weather, you may wear two or three of these. Then, you’d have your pockets, which looked like two mittens tied with a string. These would go around your waist, over your petticoats.

But we’re not done!

On top of all this, you’d add a a ‘stomacher’ to go over your stay. And then over all of this, you’d finally place your gown. Must-have accessories at the time would be your cap (since hair was only washed a few times a year, in general – yuck!) and your shoes. Oh, and there would be no difference between left and right!

How did you get your hand into your pockets?

I know what you’re thinking: with all those layers on top, how did you get your hand into your pockets? Petticoats had openings in the side seams so a woman could put her hands through and reach her pocket. The pocket was invisible and a bit buried. It wasn’t actually sewn into clothes, so it could be used with ALL your outfits. Practical, right? Since your one pair of pockets was pretty special, they’d be beautifully decorated, usually with embroidery or patchwork. They were basically two purses on a string, tied into your clothes.

What did people keep in their pockets?

There were no mobile phones, credit cards or car keys in the 18th century. So what did women keep in there, you may be wondering?

Well, given the weight of all those clothes, the horrible stench surrounding everyone due to the total lack of sanitation and showers, and the fact that your corset would be pretty tight, the history of pockets shows us there were a few essentials most women HAD to carry: smelling salts, handkerchiefs and snuff boxes were a must. Since women were busy mainly sewing and cooking at the time, you might also find a pin cushion, thimble, nutmeg grater, knife and scissors in pockets. Oh, and maybe a snack, like a cake or two.

Money was then, as it is now, a must-carry item. But some people would also sometimes sneak in a bit of booze in a flask. In fact, in the classic Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles dating back to 1891, the pal of the titular heroine carries a bottle of gin in her pocket. At all times!

history of pockets

Not theft free

You’d think since they were so hard to access, picking pockets would be pretty difficult. But actually, thieves were barely noticed, since the pockets were so far from the body. According to The Times newspaper, in March 1858, two women were convicted of stealing from the pockets of a Yorkshire woman. And they did so by simply cutting the strings that held the pockets together.

The history of pockets from Old Bailey records in London tell us that thieves used a variety of methods to snatch pockets. For example, they’d slash the pocket itself so the contents fell out. What’s more, securing your pockets while you were asleep was difficult. Many people put their pockets under their pillows, but even here they could be stolen. In fact, since people often only had one or two outfits to their name and just as many accessories, stealing clothing – including pockets – was pretty common, apparently.

Meanwhile, men’s pockets were both worn internally and externally. Just like they are today. Simple access, yes. But this made them even easier targets for thieves, as you can see in the image below.

men's pockets 18th century

Early sustainability?

All pockets back then were handmade, and they were often given as gifts. Some were made to match a specific petticoat or waistcoat, and most were made from scraps of cloth generated from dressmaking, or from old clothes or textiles. Of course, for the wealthier, pockets could also be bought ‘ready made’ by haberdashers (sellers of dress accessories and sewing materials).

Slimmer styles

Slowly, the history of pockets for women evolved. By the late 18th century, women’s fashions in Europe were moving towards a more slender shape, inspired by the draped silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Women demanded purses to keep their stuff in, rather than pockets, as pockets now seemed too bulky under ‘tighter’ clothes. And so, the first ever handbags, called reticules, became all the rage. They were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, and were carried with wrist straps.

Initially popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as “indispensables.” The fashion for bags didn’t catch on with men, though. Instead, they continued to use pockets as they always had, but did add them into the seams of their trousers, in addition to their traditional coats.

That being said, by the the 1840s, dress patterns showed a major change in the history of pockets. They  were finally more intelligently placed and were sewn into the seams of clothing, as they had been for men’s clothings since pretty much always.

history of pockets

Pants at last

Despite all the fancy, complicated clothing women generally wore centuries ago, the rising popularity of bike riding, tennis playing and horseback riding led to the creation of the knickerbocker. This was a kind of loose pant, popular with women back in the late 1800s. But by the 1920’s, women increasingly wore trousers as leisurewear. And working women often wore trousers – this was thanks to Coco Chanel leading the trend.

Trousers totally changed the history of pockets. They were further popularised by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to appear in pants at a formal function in 1933. Of course, these trousers invariably had side pockets, and possibly back pockets, too. At the same time, handbags grew in popularity. Both pockets and bags were used to carry even more stuff.

What kind of stuff, you ask? Well, for example, a full handbag someone lost in a theatre back in the 30’s was found to contain: painkillers, a pen, two lippies, facial makeup, a pin, and a rosary. Pants pockets, on the other hand, were generally used for money and hankies only.

From pants to jeans

When you think of the history of pockets, you probably immediately think of denim.

While jeans were invented by Levi Strauss & Co. in 1873, these sturdy pants were designed for men working in the fields. Certainly not for women!

It wasn’t until 1934 that ‘Lady Levi’s jeans’ were marketed, but they didn’t catch on much. After hit films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, in the 1950’s, jeans finally became associated with ‘cool youth’ rather than ‘sweaty ranchers’. This image continued through the 1960s and 1970s, when jeans were picked up by almost every youth counterculture movement that sprung up.

And jeans bring up an important point in the history of pockets: rivets.

Contrary to what you may have thought, those brass rivets aren’t just for show! They’re strategically placed on jeans the locations the garments suffers the most strain. One of those places is most definitely the pockets.


Modern fashions haven’t changed much since the 50’s, really. We still have the option of using the pockets in our jeans, trousers or even yoga tights (at the back, of course!), or our ubiquitous handbags. And did I mention how happy I am with the return of pockets in skirts? So chic!

While the contents of those pockets might have changed, our need for them has not. What will the future bring to the history of pockets? We can only imagine.


Image above: ethical skirt with pockets and tiny bag by Maggie Marilyn



Diane Small
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