YOUN YUH-JUNG made history last weekend as the first Korean actress to win the Oscar for best supporting actress, for her role in “Minari.” At 73 years old, she appeared to do so completely on her own terms, roasting Brad Pitt repeatedly onstage and admonishing the public for mispronouncing her name, all while wearing an elegant and modest brocade dress by Dubai-based designer Marmar Halim. She had told her stylist, Alvin Goh, “I don’t want big diamonds. I want to be comfortable.” Her gown, crucially, had pockets, a feature that is rarer than one might expect in 2021.
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The prevailing wisdom among fashion designers is that pockets are an unnecessary extravagance that break the line of a dress; most evening wear for women shuns them. There are exceptions: The designer Pierpaolo Piccioli (a man!) can be considered the Patron Saint of Pockets, incorporating them into many of his virtuosic gowns for Valentino. Gemma Chan strutted to the top of every best-dressed list at the 2019 Oscars wearing a hot-pink ruffled Valentino gown with pockets, and this year’s best-song nominee Laura Pausini wore the brand’s black silk-and-wool column with prominent pockets. Unsurprisingly, these actresses were all photographed on the red carpet, hands in pockets: Beyond being a practical place to stash essentials, pockets are a comfortable, comforting spot to place your hands. They just feel good.
Yet for women, pockets are still a privilege, and not just in evening wear. In her 2017 doctoral dissertation, “The Gendered Pocket: Fashion and Patriarchal Anxieties about the Female Consumer in Select Victorian Literature,” Samantha Fitch made the case that a sexist history of oppression is behind the dearth of pockets. Without pockets, women were traditionally dependent on men for essentials—like money. Ms. Fitch wrote, “Women’s pockets, in general, are smaller than men’s pockets, less numerous, or simply non-existent. Possibly worst of all, many times women find that their pockets are actually faux pockets.”
Even young girls are plagued by these irritating false pockets. In April, 7-year-old Kamryn Gardner from Bentonville, Ark., made headlines with a letter she sent to Old Navy, requesting real pockets on girls’ jeans. Her letter, which went viral, read, in part, “I do not like that the front pockets of the girls’ jeans are fake. I want front pockets because I want to put my hand in them. I also would like to put things in them.” A representative from the Old Navy team responded encouragingly, and Kamryn appeared on NPR and other national news outlets to make her case.
The first-grader joined a chorus of girls and women pleading for pockets on social media. This week the
agiteur @OhNoSheTwitnt garnered over 17,000 likes on a tweet declaring, “I’m a simple gal. I just want what every woman wants. Respect, a pack of trained wolves, death to the patriarchy, and real pockets in every dress and pair of pants.”
If the public demand for pockets is there, what, exactly, is preventing designers from adding them? Surely we’ve moved past the Victorian-era resistance to letting women carry money. But concerns about the bulkiness of pockets have persisted since 1795, when neo-classical Parisian fashions became streamlined and revealed more of women’s bodies. In the 2010 essay “Form and deformity: the Trouble with Victorian Pockets,” Christopher Todd Matthews wrote, “Pockets sewn into such a dress would have destroyed this newly “naturalized” female form.”
Over a hundred years later, the fashion industry often still leaves pockets out.
perhaps our most famous and gifted female designer, is a master of the skirt, a garment celebrated in the traveling Prada exhibition “Waist Down,” first staged in 2004. I own several of her beautiful, full skirts from different eras, and none have pockets.
But some forward-thinking designers—in addition to Mr. Piccioli of Valentino—are integrating pockets into their designs. Daniella Kallmeyer of the New York-based brand Kallmeyer told me over the phone that her philosophy was “clothes should be as practical as they are beautiful.” Looking around her Lower East Side boutique, she estimated that 19 out of 20 styles there had pockets. That includes a navy silk cocktail dress, a pert linen jumpsuit and stiff high-waisted trousers. She explained, “Even our evening attire has pockets, because even when a woman is dressed like a lady, she should still have the ability to feel cool and confident.”
To Ms. Kallmeyer, that confidence is partly postural. When designing she asks herself, “How will she walk across the street in this? How will she stand when she’s talking to someone in it?” Part of Ms. Kallmeyer’s trouser-tailoring process is putting her own hand against the pocket pattern to make sure it fits, and when she creates a back-pocket she checks that a phone will fit into it. Ah, yes, the cell phone: an essential of modern life and business that fits in very few women’s pockets. In 2014, the emergence of the larger iPhone 6 caused the Atlantic to publish a think piece about the gender imbalance in pocket design.
When women don’t have accommodating pockets, they’re forced to carry everything around in a handbag. But even purse stalwarts—such as Queen Elizabeth II—crave ease. As the queen’s longtime dresser, Angela Kelly, described in her 2019 book “The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe,” the monarch harbored a longtime wish to be “photographed more informally and have the freedom, for example, to pose with her hands in her pockets.” So a shoot with photographer Barry Jeffery was arranged, and the resulting pictures show the Queen standing in a white knee-length dress, smiling with her hands in her pockets. Ms. Kelly claimed that some in the queen’s camp worried that the casual photos would “bring the Monarchy down.” Such is the power of the pocket.
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