Intimate Spaces: The Archaeology of Pockets
On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning. Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things: two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings. The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994. Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things. We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.
Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets. Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket. Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands. There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them.
Maybe our use of some pockets is largely functional, like a right-hander who habitually slides their key chain into their readily accessible right front pants pocket. Yet many pocket use patterns are the complicated result of longstanding practices and the vagaries of fashion. For instance, men’s back pants pockets often betray “billfold bulge,” which is even worse in the face of contour-hugging skinny jeans and similar cuts. In 1977, the Palm Beach Post assessed increasingly lean European pants cuts and pocket-less pants and recognized pocket use was a force of habit, concluding that “most men just don’t feel comfortable unless everything is in the same place its been for years.” Thirty years later Details advised that there “is absolutely no need for you to shove an engorged wallet in the pocket of your $400 jeans.” They concluded that “the contemporary pocket-stuffer is one of three things: an oblivious creature of habit, a man too insecure to carry a shoulder bag, or someone lacking the organizational skills to pare down the clutter that sits like a benign tumor on his right cheek to a couple of $100 bills and an AmEx.”
Much of pocket use is rooted in ideological notions of gender, class, and sexuality, historical fashion styles, and unexamined pocket use habits. Since the late 19th century masculinity ideologies and fashion have cast pockets as somehow distinctively “masculine” reserves. In the 18th century women’s garments included concealed pockets, with expansive tie pockets under dresses and petticoats in use for roughly two centuries. Garments began to include far fewer pockets in the late 19th century as dresses and coats became more streamlined and the handbag became the carry-all of choice for women. In 1899 a New York Times commentator noted the gradual disappearance of women’s garment pockets and remembered that “our grandmothers . . . used to have big, deep pockets in their skirts which they could get at somehow and in which they usually carried the household keys, a ball of yarn with knitting needles stuck in it, a little smooth-worn gourd for darning operations, and very often a few doughnuts or cookies and apples and a pair of spectacles.”
That 1899 Times article ended by associating pockets with property ownership and gender equality, a theme often raised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The paper lamented the decreasing number of women’s pockets, arguing that “the female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless.” Pocketed dresses sometimes were advanced as vehicles for women’s rights in the early 20th century, albeit without much apparent success. In 1910, for instance, the American Ladies Tailors’ Association introduced what it dubbed the “suffragette suit,” a divided skirt replete with “plenty of pockets.” In 1917 the Detroit Free-Press reported on Ruth Butts Carson’s “Penelope Gown” dress design, exclaiming that “from having no pockets at all to the possession of a gown with eight pockets would be a radical change.” A year earlier, though, the Chicago Tribune had reported that at a New York presentation of Carson’s gown the “reform dress did not succeed.” The paper reported that men were interested in the structurally simplistic gown, but “the report does not convey the information that the ladies present regarded the Penelope garment with anything more than mild interest.”
Women’s handbags emerged on a mass scale in the late 19th century and offered women a distinctive space to store pocket-able things that was not available to men. Today a host of commonplace backpacks, messenger bags, and carry-alls offer men plenty of “extra pocket” personal storage, but some men remain resistant to such bags. In 1977 a salesman at a Palm Beach shop acknowledged his perception of masculinity and pockets, admitting that “most of the pants have sculptured pockets that are strictly for design and the only thing I carry is money. I can’t bring myself to carry a handbag. I’ve seen a lot of nice ones that don’t look fruity, but I just can’t do it.”
That resistance to men’s bags appears to have eroded since then. In January The Telegraph reported that a British survey revealed that more than half of all men now carry a bag. The paper found that the average value of a bag’s contents was £880 ($1340 US), and the “main items men carry are smartphones, laptops, tablets, glasses and digital cameras. Some also decide to pack a toothbrush, aftershave and even spare underwear” (one in ten men carry spare underwear). Last week, Market Watch declared that 2014 was the “year of the man purse” based on a 35% increase in sales accounting for $2.3 billion in sales, and Quartz reported that 5.9 million men’s luxury handbags were sold in 2014 (one in five of all handbags).
Many contour-hugging men’s and women’s garments have eliminated pockets nearly entirely, but densely pocketed cargo pants still hold a marketplace niche. Joseph Hancock’s exhaustive study of cargo pants argues that the British military may have introduced pocket-laden fatigues in the 1930’s; the Banana Republic chain popularized the story that Francisco Franco introduced cargo pants so soldiers could not place their hands in their pockets; and in 1942 a style of American military fatigues included numerous pockets. In the 1990s the style became mainstream as “utility chic,” and last year the Wall Street Journal argued that cargo pants have “experienced a complete reputation rehab to become one of the most stylish and versatile go-to pieces of a man’s wardrobe.”
Consequently, pockets have disappeared from some garments, but many more continue to provide storage space. Some designers are adding specially sized pockets to accommodate cell phones and larger “phablets,” devices that are much more difficult to accommodate to the smaller pockets in most contemporary women’s garments. In September 2014 The Atlantic complained about the gender inequalities of pocket styles in women’s garments, and The Wall Street Journal warned women that an iPhone 6 would require they secure a “whole new wardrobe.” A merchandiser for Lee jeans was reluctant to embrace cargo pockets, but she acknowledged that “market research has shown that women value pocket utility” and Lee might be compelled to “evolve our aesthetic.”
Many people seem to be fascinated by the specific sorts of things that secure sufficiently important status to be in our pockets or handbags. Francois Robert’s photo project “Contents” documents all the things he found in garment pockets, backpacks, and handbags, underscoring an idiosyncratic picture of individuals’ notions of personal things. Robert is by no mean alone in his fascination with the things in our pockets: compare George Legrady’s exhibit “Pockets Full of Memories”, which displays the images of objects people carry with them into the exhibit; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Please Empty Your Pockets”; Jason Travis’ “What’s in Your Bag?”; Erin Taylor’s study of the cross-cultural meanings of pocketed things and currency; The Art of Manliness’ “What’s in your Pocket?”; Linda Alstead’s gallery of handbag and pocket contents; a clever lamp base containing all the things a mother found in her son’s pockets, whose story is detailed here; and the 2007 project “Face Your Pockets” challenged people to place their pocket’s contents and their face on a flatbed scanner (their original page has disappeared, but a facebook page and a flick’r page survive).
Much of this creative work examines pockets as secretive personal spaces. For instance, Meredith Brickell’s “Pocket Project” makes ceramic castings of pockets to illuminate pockets’ functions both containing and hiding things and secrets. In a similar vein, Hannah Smith Allen’s “Pockets” project includes pictures of pockets turned inside out in images that she calls “modern day rorschachs that both mimic and transcend the material world.”
One of the most fascinating expressions of our curiosity about pocket contents may be Everyday Carry. The page inventories all the things that a variety of people carry, but this is not as a personality inventory; instead, Everyday Carry is a social commerce site that allows us to acknowledge our curiosity about intimate everyday objects, digitally peek into people’s pockets, and purchase the things in other peoples’ pockets. The site concedes our curiosity about the things that secure the meaningfulness of being classed as “everyday,” especially those that reach our innermost garment pockets. Everyday Carry does that without any especially sophisticated reflection on those things, though, instead leading us to the comfort of consumer space, where we can buy the same stuff even if we do not quite understand what it meant in other pockets.
2002 Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth–Century Britain. Gender & History 14(3):447–469. (subscription access)
The Chicago Tribune
1916 Why Reform Dress Does Not Succeed. The Chicago Tribune 16 July:4.
The Detroit Free Press
1917 And Now Comes “Pockets for Women.” The Detroit Free Press 15 November:7.
Mrs. S.C. Hall
1849 Grandmamma’s Pockets. William and Robert Chambers, Edinburgh.
Joseph H. Hancock, II
2007 “These Aren’t the Same Pants Your Grandfather Wore!”: The Evolution of Branding Cargo Pants in 21st Century Fashion. Phd Dissertation, Ohio State University.
Joseph H. Hancock, II and Edward Choi Augustyn
Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2(2):183-195. (subscription access)
2014 Men’s Cargo Pants Turn Refined for Spring. Wall Street Journal (Online) 18 April. (subscription access)
1977 Pocketless Pants. The Palm Beach Post 10 October:B1-B2.
The New York Times
1899 World’s Use of Pockets. New York Times 28 August:7.
1910 Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit. New York Times 10 October:5.
2013 Place, Pockets, and Possibilities: The Work of Meredith Brickell. Ceramics Monthly November 48-51.
1999 Pockets and More Pockets Make Pants the Fashion Pick. Rome News-Tribune 4 April:8C:
Lady’s pocket image from Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Meredith Brickell “Pockets Project” image from Meredith Knapp Brickell.
Prada men’s handbag image from Quartz
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Please Empty Your Pockets, Subsculpture 12” image from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (photo by Peter Mallet)
Ruth Butts Carson dress patent image from Google Patents.