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Pick your clothes wisely, if you want pockets

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you've ever bought a dress from the women's section of a store, you might recognize this reaction...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KARDASHIANS")

KRIS JENNER: Oh, perfect.

FAYE RESNICK: Kris.

JENNER: I know. It's my dream.

SUMMERS: ...When you discover it has pockets. There's even social media hype around the unbridled joy of acquiring pocket-laden clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BRITTANY LAW: I like your dress.

Thanks. It has (singing) pockets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This dress is called the Fig, and the pockets are so big they can hold things like a bottle of bourbon.

SUMMERS: Unfortunately for most feminine clothes, there is a long history of horror behind that rare joy of discovering pockets - the horror of reaching for a safe place to put your awkwardly dangling hands and discovering your pockets are fake, sealed shut or perhaps nonexistent.

HANNAH CARLSON: Have you ever been locked out of - I don't know - the car or your house and you do that patting yourself down gesture and you're like, oh, do I have something useful?

SUMMERS: Only to discover your purse with the keys in it - it's in the car because you don't have pockets.

CARLSON: And it struck me that womenswear just so often falls down on the job. Why is that the case? And then I just started thinking, well, what kind of a thing is a pocket anyway?

SUMMERS: That's Hannah Carlson. She spent a long time pondering the very question of who gets to have pockets and why. Her new book is called "Pockets: An Intimate History Of How We Keep Things Close."

CARLSON: I think lurking under this is this notion that menswear is meant for utility and womenswear for beauty, and that comes out in the decisions we make when we make our clothes. Gendered characteristics - they're not realities. They're just sort of ideas. And to feel comfortable with those ideas, we need evidence of their truth. And that evidence comes out in material objects. If you go into any major mass-market brand, why must girls' clothes always sparkle, you know? Why are shorts so short? Why did a 7-year-old from Arkansas have to write the CEO of Old Navy demanding real pockets in jeans?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMRYN GARDNER: Dear Old Navy, I do not like that the front pockets of the girls' jeans are fake. I want front pockets because I want to put things in them. Would you consider making girls' jeans with front pockets? Sincerely, Kamryn Gardner, age 7.

CARLSON: With these sorts of mass-market offerings, it's teaching girls that they have to accept sort of difficulty and that their clothing is going to be inconvenient. It seems like pockets are introduced in the 16th century, and the very first place they go is men's breeches. And breeches were these huge sort of pumpkin-like bloomer things. And the first pocket seems sort of, like, improvisational. Like, oh, the tailor says, instead of sticking this bag around your waist, I'm going to stitch it inside these big, fat breeches.

Through the early 20th century, boys wore dresses till about the age of 3, and so it was called breeching - leaving behind children's dress and beginning to wear trousers. There's this image from 1860 from Peterson's Magazine, and it shows a young boy who's just gotten to have his first trousers. It shows the boy just having so much fun, strutting around. His legs are spread apart. He's got his hands in his pockets. He's lording it over his puppy. And I think that notion that to be grown up means you get this new, good stuff - you get to have pockets. You get to have command and control, a place to put everything in. And I think that's what, you know, is missing from tales of girlhood.

Womenswear always had sort of alternate pockets. And so I don't think women were very bothered by the fact that men had these new pockets in their breeches. It didn't matter. And it doesn't really matter until the development of the suit and the development of women's modern fashion. So with the suit, there's just sort of this explosion of pockets. It rejects the ornament and frivolity of the 18th century aristocracy. It's associated with authority. What's every single politician going to wear on a debate stage? A suit. It's serious, but it was also always practical.

Through the 1920s, pockets came and went. They never had a settled place. And the first thing to go in women's fast fashion is pockets. But it remains the case that pockets are a part of doing business in menswear. And so I do think that we've been making huge strides in pocketing for women and considering that women do need utilitarian clothes to make it. But I kind of wonder if menswear will accept purses in a way before we have pockets that are totally and utterly standard for women.

SUMMERS: That was Hannah Carlson talking about her new book "Pockets: An Intimate History Of How We Keep Things Close."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOBY SONG, "EXTREME WAYS")

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hands in pockets, I'm going to tell you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.