“All that makes life worth living, all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one-pocketed or no-pocketed animal that hop or trip about permissively, unequipped for the real contest.” – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Once upon a time, women in western culture had no pockets. If they wished to carry belongings around with them, they were limited holding them in their hands, dangling small objects from the waist on a chatelaine, or informally stuffing things up sleeves or down their bodices.
That time ended around the middle of the seventeenth century, when women began to wear bag-like pockets, like the ones shown here, under their clothes.The pockets were not sewn into their garments, as with men’s clothing, but rather tied around the waist (often in pairs), on long strings. Slits in the sides of their gowns and petticoats gave them access to the pockets underneath.
Although men had the advantage of having many pockets – pockets in their breeches, pockets in their waistcoats and pockets in their frockcoats – women’s pockets were especially capacious. They measured between twelve and twenty inches long, and between eight and fifteen inches wide at the bottom. Although it was undoubtedly inconvenient for a woman to locate the opening to her pocket inside her layers of clothing, the fact that pockets were not sewn into garments meant that they could be stuffed to bulging point without pulling on and distorting the shape of her gown.
Ariane Fennetaux notes that pockets gave women some privacy, and the right to their own small possessions. Even the most wealthy and aristocratic woman, she observes, did not necessarily have a room that was exclusively hers, or even a personal writing desk or chest of drawers that she could lock. While most housewives carried around sewing paraphernalia (such as needles, thread, thimbles, etc) in their pockets, and other similar items to help them run their households, women also carried private letters and diaries. Then, too, they sometimes carried sentimental mementos in their pockets – locks of hair, lockets and miniatures.
Pockets not only gave them rights over their own possessions, but rights over the ownership of their bodies, as well. Fennetaux cites both the instances of the fictional Moll Flanders, who, unknown to her adoptive family, was able venture out for a forbidden sexual tryst because she had “a Hood, a Mask, a Fan and a pair of Gloves,” concealed in her pockets, and also that of an unknown young woman who fended off the unwanted advances of celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys by pulling some pins out of her pocket and threatening to prick him if he persisted in trying to grope her.
I felt most intrigued by the fact that, although meant to be concealed under clothing, so many 18th-century women’s pockets are made of fine cloth or are lavishly embroidered. Fennetaux suggests that women made thrifty use of remnant fabric, and practiced their embroidery skills on clothing items that went unseen. But I believe there is more to the story. I consider these attractive pockets to be analogous to modern women’s lingerie. Women today wear lacy, shear, sexy underwear not only to allure men sexually, but also to feel alluring. I believe that eighteenth-century women felt the same way about their pockets. And indeed, cartoonists of the period sometimes depicted sexually loose women with their pockets showing.
Without a doubt, women valued their pockets. The last pocket shown here especially evidences this: it was remade from a richly embroidered satin stomacher. Stomachers were the triangular sections on the fronts of seventeenth and eighteenth-century gowns that spanned the area across the breasts and narrowed to a point at the center of the midriff. Because they, too, were exchangeable from gown to gown, stomachers were often showpieces for the wearer. A woman’s best stomacher was made from the most expensive cloth she could afford , and if possible, trimmed or embroidered decoratively. But around 1790 gowns with stomachers went out of fashion, and the owner of this one decided to recycle it by making it into a pocket . She would not have done so if she did not consider her pocket worthy of the honor of being made from such a remarkably fine and costly stomacher.
Pockets empowered women in many ways: they allowed them to carry possessions around with them for practical and personal uses, and gave them rights of ownership and privacy. I argue that decorative pockets also heightened women’s self-esteem by making them to feel more attractive – and that they esteemed their pockets in return. So ladies, please, appreciate your pockets. But observe the decencies – keep them under wraps.
* The Victoria and Albert Museum has a web page devoted to pockets: www.vam.ac.uk/page/p/pockets.
 Yolanda De Krol, “Ladies’ pockets,” The Magazine Antiques (March 1996): 439.De Krol produced a more intensive study for her master’s thesis “‘Ty’ed about my middle, next to my smock’: the Cultural Context of Women’s Pockets.” Unfortunately I have not had the chance to consult it.
 Barbara Burman, “Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Gender and History v.14, 3 (Nov 2002: 449.
 Ariane Fennetaux, “Women’s Pockets and the Construction of Privacy in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction: v.20, 3: 307, 311, 325.
Available at: http:/digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol20/iss3/5.
 Fennetaux, “Women’s Pockets,” 321-2.