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…
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
Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence