Often overlooked, the humble pocket is an essential detail in modern clothing. Quietly enabling you to keep what you need close at hand, the pocket has earned a special place in our wardrobes since its earliest appearance almost 250 years ago.
Derived from the Old French word poque – meaning bag – the word pocket once referred to small pouches that were tied to their wearer, before slowly transitioning to the sewn-in design we know today. With a rich history influenced by political shifts, changing gender roles and the evolving needs of our everyday lives, the cultural significance of the pocket is surprisingly meaningful.
Celebrating this, we asked Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian and senior lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art, to reflect on our enduring attachment to pockets…
In 1947, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged the exhibition Are Clothes Modern?. Part of the answer lay in the number and usefulness of pockets in contemporary menswear. The show’s curator Bernard Rudofsky bemoaned the excess of pockets in the tailoring of the time (24 by his calculation), many of which never carried anything. What was needed, Rudofsky felt, was a rationalisation — how many pockets are truly required for modern life?
Ironically, at that time mid-century America was witnessing a Golden Age for pockets in womenswear. While historically women tended to lack pockets, because it was felt that women didn’t need anything so practical, New York’s designers were experimenting with a multitude of exciting pocket possibilities. Vera Maxwell created large, zipped pockets on a tweed coat that were lined with plastic compartments to stow toiletries when travelling, and Bonnie Cashin made a full, houndstooth skirt with a pocket that looked like a purse (complete with brass clasp) to carry money safely.
However, the undisputed queen of pockets must be designer Claire McCardell, who not only made a variety of pocket styles for everything from playsuits to evening dresses, but also understood the impact that the humble item had on women’s lives. In her 1956 book What Shall I Wear? The What, When, Where and How Much of Fashion, she wrote “Pockets: a necessity in everyday dress, usually useful, but sometimes a line to mark a hip bone — but also a place to put your hands”. In this single sentence she captured their threefold importance: for carrying things, as a way for designers to define silhouette, and as something that impacts gesture and stance. Who hasn’t pushed their hands deep into their pockets — to keep them warm or just for the casual, confident pose that the action creates?
Pockets are part of how we dress, how we stand and how we live. They are visible or invisible. Fake or functional. They hint at bygone customs (just think of that little pocket on your jeans that used to carry a watch), and with their continued role in our daily lives, they also look towards the future by asking: what kind of pocket is truly modern?
Text by Rebecca Arnold
Installation view of the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’. MoMA, NY, November 28, 1944 – March 4, 1945. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archive. Photographer: Soichi Sunami (copyright unknown). Catalogue number: IN269.1. © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Installation view of the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’. MoMA, NY, November 28, 1944 – March 4, 1945. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Gelatin-silver print, 7 x 8 1/4″ (17.7 x 20.9 cm). Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archive. Photographer: Soichi Sunami (copyright unknown). Catalogue number: IN269.10. © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Dr Rebecca Arnold, is the Oak Foundation Senior Lecturer in History of Dress & Textiles at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and the author of the much-referenced Documenting Fashion platform. There, Rebecca and her students document the world of fashion and the history of dress in all forms – as image, as object, as text, as an experience and as an industry.