On a recent trip where I was travelling by myself, I had to be doubly careful about my connectivity (two phones) and my money. I wore my jeans to the airport and realized I needed to have some spare money on my person just in case. And then came the disturbing bit. My phones occupied the two tiny pockets, and I would surely misplace the notes in the rush to pick up and answer calls. And at 4.30 am standing in immigration I realized—my jeans had sexist pockets.
Although not as dramatic as I’m making it out to be, the experience brought to mind the varying proportions of form and function across women and men’s apparel. Scant pockets (or even a lack thereof) are a gross disutility today. Women either buy apparel with “fake pockets” or incredibly small pockets, leaving nowhere to keep money or property on their person (see also Myers, 2014). Pockets featured in menswear long before, more diversely, and largely (in size) than in women’s attire. Pockets imply agency and autonomy; they denote dedicated sections in apparel that are meant to store personal belongings, money, keys, phones, cards, and whatnot. The absence or presence of pockets and their size have associations beyond design and convenience.
Researchers in dress and gender studies have examined the history of pockets, and their socio-cultural and economic implications. For instance, Hannah Carlson’s PhD dissertation (2009) was about the cultural history of pockets and pocketed possessions, making references to the spatial distribution of pockets on male and female apparel, and pocket-specific gestures, among others. For instance, putting one’s hands in one’s pockets is a more male gesture, than female, deemed a sign of dominance and relaxation. Similarly, pockets may represent gender-specific behaviours and utilities much more than we notice on a daily basis. The form and aesthetic of women’s apparel continues to supersede basic functionalities, like pockets, restricting hands-free mobility.
This may seem like a feminist rant on inequalities appearing in the strangest of places (like in your pockets). However, this derives from a need for women’s apparel to become more utilitarian, without losing its femininity; presumably the latter is guarded more closely by the fashion industry, paying little attention to the former, leading to discontent among women. For instance, this article states that women should not buy the iPhone 6 Plus because it will not fit into their pockets! To reiterate, pockets enable the carrying of property, which women now have; ergo, pockets have become a common feature in their apparel. Yet, women’s attire does not have “big enough” pockets to carry larger property. Thus, limitations inherent in women’s jeans, skirts, and so on may directly affect purchase decisions; the opposite may also happen, however it may be less likely that the iPhone is re-designed to accommodate it into women’s pockets.
Minimal functional designs for women’s attire have several consequences. In the absence of pockets, women may choose to carry handbags and purses—another booming market in fashion. Women may often not have their belongings on their person with immediate access, inconveniencing them, not to mention making it unsafe in the case of theft. A lack of adapted designs for daily use is disadvantageous for both genders, because an overemphasis on form in everyday apparel is likely to be met with disdain, sooner than later.
Fashion serves the dual purposes of aesthetic appeal and utility. While men’s apparel has seemed to find a good balance between the two, women’s apparel is grossly lopsided on the appearance-and-fit end. Baggy, large, and several pockets may not be the immediate solution; however, sensitizing designers to the current requirements of women may be a good place to start. In India, this may be even more difficult, given that the saree is less amenable to being fitted with pockets. Yet, creative designers have found a way to make this traditional attire more utilitarian, without being less fashionable.
Most kurtas and kameezes have stitched-in pockets, possibly recognizing their importance for men and women alike. Skirts, too, come with pockets now. However, these are the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself. It may take a while for practical and functional attire to become the norm for women, but until then I’d suggest doing what my mother did 25 years ago: go to a tailor and get them stitched on.