Clothes Fashion

The Surprising History Of Pockets

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, which 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

Damn, but women used to wear a lot of clothing back in the 1700s! You’d start with your shift, and your garters and stockings, and maybe some bloomers – essentially long pants that acted as underwear (these were not so popular though, because having to pull them down made toilet stuff harder).

Your stay – a corset-like garment, would serve as a kind of back and breast support. 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 – ick!) and your shoes (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 – but it was at least, accessible.

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?

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, there were a few essentials most women HAD to carry: smelling salts, handkerchiefs and snuff boxes were a must.

Since women were busy sewing and cooking at the time, you may find a pin cushion, thimble, nutmeg grater, knife and scissors. 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!

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 cutting the strings that held the pockets together, and on the skirt.

The Old Bailey records in London tell us that thieves used a variety of methods to snatch pockets such as cutting the pocket strings and grabbing the pocket or slashing the pocket itself so the contents fell out. 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 not unheard of.

Meanwhile, men’s pockets were both worn internally and externally, making them even easier targets for thieves, as you can see in the image below.

Slimmer Styles

By the late 18th century, 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, which now seemed too bulky under ‘tighter’ clothes. And so, the first ever handbags, called reticules, became the latest rage. They were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, carried with wrist straps.

First becoming 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, and added them to trousers, in addition to their traditional coats.

That being said, by the the 1840s, dress patterns showed pockets that were finally more intelligently placed: they were sewn into the seams.

Early sustainability?

Most pockets 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).

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 made the knickerbocker, 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, including female pilots, often wore trousers.

Trousers were further popularised by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, and 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 and both pockets and bags were used to carry even more stuff.

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.


Modern fashions haven’t changed much since the 30’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 – just be sure that you keep your mobile phone (the most common item that we all carry these days, it seems) well away from your body – that guy belongs in a bag, not a pocket!

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




Diane Small

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