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If the Pocket Fits, Stuff It

On a somewhat bleary morning a few months ago, I was dressing my daughter in yet another one of the outfits she only managed to wear once. As I fished around for the pacifier and the nail clippers that I didn’t have pockets of my own in which to store, I realized with a bit of peevishness that she had a pocket. Yes, an honest-to-god pocket.

A surprisingly large percentage of infant clothes—I’m talking 0-3 month sizes here, not even potential precocious walkers—come with fully functional pockets. I know a mother who says her son managed to spit up into these pockets on a regular basis. Even when they were on the sleeve of his clothing. Hey, what’s a pocket for if not to put something in it?

Meanwhile, a roughly equivalent percentage of women’s pants come with fake pockets. It’s bad enough how often we just don’t get pockets at all. But to put in utterly useless appearances of pockets? With buttons? And little ridges of fabric that must be harder to attach than an actual pocket? Insult to injury.

It would be easy and tempting at this point to spout ridiculous theories about conspiracies between makers of handbags and makers of women’s dress pants.

It is also fairly predictable to let one’s mind stray to classic feminist analysis about how women are themselves expected to be mostly for decoration, not useful, not tramping around independently without a guy to carry the money and the car keys. That probably did inspire a lot of the weirdnesses of women’s fashion we have. Salons are still allowed to charge more for women’s haircuts, regardless of time or complexity, and dry cleaners can charge more to launder the exact same shirt if a woman brings it in. (Yes, it still happens!) So certainly expecting women to wear uncomfortable clothes just to keep it appropriately challenging to be sufficiently feminine is not dead.

But I think there’s something more specific going on with the pockets. A friend of mine who was bemoaning during her last pregnancy the even more extreme paucity of maternity clothes with pockets theorized that that’s because if you’re already bulging a little, you don’t want to add any mass to your midsection, since it might confuse onlookers into thinking you were fat instead of pregnant.

What’s wrong with that picture? Let’s see, it was the pregnant woman who theoretically wouldn’t want to appear fat. But it was the makers of maternity clothes who made that choice for her. Last time I checked, there was nothing about a pocket that forced one to fill it with anything, let alone anything bulky.

Still, I think that is what they’re doing. In fact, I think it’s what all the clothing manufacturers are doing. Women are supposed to look a certain way—slender, generally, and their clothes are supposed to accentuate that, fit a certain way, look a certain way. The traditional look of pants expects pockets in certain places, and they can be a design element. But to prevent end users from using the product wrong—stuffing a fat wallet in form-fitting slacks, for example, or a handkerchief, or a handful of throat lozenges—they simply disallow it.

It’s a liability lawyer’s mentality: Prevent complaints about the look of the clothes from foolish harpies who don’t know how to dress by removing variables about how the product is used. Even more important, prevent there from being any of said foolish women out there in the world making their pants look bad.

Or if I’m being kinder, perhaps the reasoning goes more like: Now women will like our clothes better because they won’t accidentally hurt their ego on them, so to speak.

OK, OK. So this is perhaps only slightly less far-fetched than the purse conspiracy. I don’t actually think anyone sits around discussing clothing design in these terms explicitly. And yet it fits so well into our culture of removing choice, distrusting people’s common sense (and thereby weakening it with disuse), and expecting that a manufacturer of a product should have a say in how that product gets used.

Worrying about pregnant women’s body image for them is awfully paternalistic, but not out of line with current trends.

Take my car. It won’t let me reach through a wide-open window to unlock the doors without setting up a god-awful racket (and we asked for no alarm). If I unlock it but then don’t open a door for a given amount of time, say if I’m busy in the trunk, it’ll relock itself. I appreciate that it’s trying to keep itself from being stolen, but in plenty of circumstances, such as camping at a small folk festival, it’s just being a pain in my behind. And the real problem is there’s no off switch. No choice.

Give me the pockets. I promise that when I go to the fancy ball where the fashion photographers are I won’t ball up three extra pair of pantyhose in them. Then again, if I decide to, it’s none of your business.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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