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Why Women’s Clothes Have Small Pockets and Other Fashion Quandaries

If you know one thing about womenswear relative to menswear, it’s that they’re sorely lacking in pockets. Dresses? Often nonexistent. Pants? So small they're functionally useless. According to a 2018 study of the 20 most popular brands of jeans, the disparity is even more severe than you might expect: on average, the pockets in women's jeans are 6.5 percent narrower and 48 percent shorter than their male counterparts. And though a number of companies are now working to correct this grievous oversight, many legacy brands have yet to get with the times. But why is this a problem in the first place?

As it turns out, lots of reasons. In the 1600s, women didn't have pockets in their clothing at all — they had belts with attached pockets that they usually wore under their skirts and accessed via small slits that were meant to be essentially invisible. These were spacious enough to carry everything from fruit to gloves and were often as stylish as the purses of today. Purses themselves became more fashionable (and functional) as dresses got smaller and less conducive to covert storage, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that pockets were regularly sewed directly into women’s clothing; for a time, most of them were even larger than men’s pockets.

Then the same thing happened to pants and other garments that had happened to dresses: smaller, more form-fitting variants came into vogue, making it difficult for large pockets to stick around. The line of thought was that they ruined the female silhouette, which is perhaps the main crux of this issue: gender inequality.

Women have long entreated the fashion industry to elevate function to the same level as form. The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 to push back against corsets and other constricting garments in favor of clothing that was more comfortable and practical, but it wasn’t until World War II that more utilitarian clothing for women happened en masse — and that was only because women were suddenly performing jobs that had previously been the sole province of men.

If you’ve seen “A League of Their Own,” you already know what happened once the war ended: things went back to the way they were. Rosie the Riveter's jumpsuit with the extra-large cargo pockets went back in the closet and the cinched-waist A-line dresses and heels of the stereotypical 1950s, ultra-feminine housewife became standard. Small steps have been made since then, of course, but by and large women are still forced to deal with tiny or nonexistent pockets. Just ask any woman to stick her smartphone in front pocket — it's not possible.

What’s that tiny pocket on my jeans?

Small jean pockets
Credit: TPopova/ iStock

Speaking of tiny pockets, that little pocket-within-a-pocket on your jeans can feel like a bygone design flourish. Perhaps you put small change in there, but most adults tend to forget it even exists. Despite all the names it’s had over time — such as.frontier pocket, coin pocket, and ticket pocket — it originally had a specific purpose that didn’t pertain to any of those objects: a place to put your watch.

Jeans were originally called waist overalls when Levi Strauss & Co. first began making them in 1879, and the company’s jeans always had this dedicated spot for pocket watches — especially those worn by miners, carpenters, and the like. They only had three other pockets (one on the back and two on the front) at the time, making the watch pocket especially prominent. As for why it has stuck around, the answer seems to be a familiar one: people were used to it and no one felt inclined to phase it out.

How a sweatshirt's V-stitch had a real purpose

Colorful hoodies hanging on a rack
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Ever notice how some of your sweatshirts have V-shaped stitching under the collar? Known by some as a V-insert and others as a Dorito (yum!), this strange little detail would appear to put form over function — it doesn’t really do anything, so far as most of us can tell, and some might find it a strange design choice at that. Amazingly though, the V-stitch can actually serve not one, but two purposes.

The first has to do with the structural integrity of the sweatshirt itself. As these garments are worn by placing one’s noggin directly through the collar, they’re also prone to stretching — but not if they’ve got a V-insert, whose elastic ribbing promotes elasticity and prevents the material from losing shape. The second has to do with sweat, which has a way of permeating crewnecks and letting the outside world see how much that last workout raised your heart rate. Ribbed V-stitches absorb some of this perspiration, keeping us looking fresh even when we aren’t feeling that way.

While it’s true that many V-inserts you’ll see today are purely decorative, as they aren’t ribbed, some uphold the traditions of yore and keep our sweaters looking like they did the day you bought them. Thanks, V-stitch.

What about that loop on the back of my button-down?

Stack of blue and white button down shirts
Credit: iprachenko/ iStock

If you were to go pick a button-down shirt out of your closet and examine the back of it, you might find something surprising: a small loop of fabric found an inch or two below the collar. Like all great stories, the origin of locker loops, as they’re known, involves sailors, the Ivy League, and the mid-20th century. Having just heard their name, you can likely guess why they exist: hanging shirts is a pretty hip way to store them, not to mention time-saving and efficient.

Because locker loops are believed to have first appeared on the uniforms of East Coast sailors, whose ships tended to have lockers rather than closets, their function was twofold: they saved space and prevented wrinkles that might arise from, erm, folding. Locker loops were then incorporated into the button-down shirts made by Gant Shirtmakers, Yale's official clothing brand at the time, helping develop an aesthetic that would now be described as preppy.

No longer content to simply use locker loops for storage purposes, as the fine people at Gant intended, students began to use them to signal their relationship status. Girls would remove the locker loops from shirts belonging to the object of their affection, and some boys would tear off their own to let the world know that they were taken. This trend didn't last (perhaps because men would need to buy all new shirts after any break-up?), but the loops are still around today.

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