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Pocket history: Why dresses hardly ever have pockets

Woman with her hands in her pockets.
Pockets in dresses and skirts allows room for mobile phones and purses.

Unsplash: Soroush Karimi

Do you find it frustrating that dresses and skirts hardly ever have pockets?

Even pants and jackets for women often don't have pockets you can actually put things in.

And as with many things, it turns out history is partly to blame.

Clothes with pockets are a relatively new phenomenon, National Galley of Victoria textile and fashions curator Paola Di Trocchio said.

"In the 17th century women and men actually had external pockets," she told ABC Radio Melbourne's Hilary Harper.

An embroidered bag-like object consisting of a large tasselled pocket on a cord.
Hanging pockets could be quite elaborate, even though they were usually hidden.

Supplied: National Gallery of Victoria

These pockets weren't sewn into clothes but instead were attached to a cord which was tied around the waist.

While women who worked would wear these pockets on the outside of their clothing for ease of access, others wore the pockets under their skirts.

The large skirts in fashion at the time meant people could hide a lot in their pockets.

According to the book Pockets Of History, an English woman named Jane Griffiths faced court for theft in 1777 after attempting to pocket two live ducks.

Pockets a victim of fashion

Ms Di Trocchio said hanging pockets got even larger as the industrial revolution produced more items to put in them.

However fashions change and by the beginning of the 19th century bulky skirts had started to fall out of favour.

Instead, high-waisted skirts which fell closely around the body became popular, but these were useless for hiding pockets.

"There were still women who used their tie-on pockets, but then towards the latter part of the 19th century it started to be considered quite old fashioned," Ms Di Trocchio said.

By this time men's clothes often included sewn-in pockets, because although women had begun to go out in public more "it was the men, typically, who handled money".

Women would often carry their items in a tiny bag, called a reticule, which eventually grew to a sensible size and became the modern handbag.

Chanel brings back the pocket

A woman in a striped top stands, hands in pant pockets, next to a dog. (Dog out of frame in some crops)
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel used elements of menswear when designing her clothes for women.

Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s fashion designer Coco Chanel began putting functional pockets in her jackets.

"She's taking elements from menswear and putting them into womenswear," Ms Di Trocchio said.

This sparked a change in posture, as 19th century women had traditionally held their hands in front of them, using a muff to keep them warm.

Pants, and hence pockets, became more common for women in the 1960s and 1970s, but women were sometimes rejected from restaurants for wearing them.

As for the future, Ms Di Trocchio said there's hope for pocket-lovers, with pockets potentially becoming larger and more common.

"Because we've got smartphones ... either our handbags or our pockets probably, design-wise, will respond because that's what humans are asking for, that's what they're desiring."