Thanks to Rose Linden for submitting this myth–and yes, it is a myth.
I found an MA thesis written in 1994 by Yolanda VandeKrol of the University of Delaware entitled “The Cultural Context of Women’s Pockets” that treats this topic thoroughly. According to Ms. VandeKrol, pockets were common from the end of the 17th century until around 1800, when the neoclassical dress styles (high waists and clingy lines) made wearing interior pockets impossible. Dresses with hoops or bustles more easily accommodated pockets. By the early 1800s, pockets had been replaced by drawstring bags called reticules.
Pockets were defined in 1688 as “little bags set on the inside with a hole or slit on the outside, by which any small thing may be carried about.” They were “not visible for reasons of orderliness, privacy, and crime,” says VandeKrol. “Women did not deliberately display their pockets,” but sometimes they were briefly visible, as these prints show. Interestingly, these prints also show that women of all socio-economic levels wore pockets–even servants and slaves.
Wearing the pocket inside the clothing gave the woman’s outfit a neater appearance. It also allowed women to keep certain private items, like letters, away from prying eyes. But the biggest reason was probably fear of thieves. The cut-purse, like the pickpocket, was aptly named.
Most women made their own pockets and many were decorated with embroidery (usually floral designs) or pieced or sewn from preprinted fabric. Needlework and decorative sewing was an acceptable occupation for women and because “idleness is inexcusable in a woman, and renders her contemptible,” so young girls of all social classes were encouraged to do lots of needlework from the time they were children. Some gave decorated pockets as gifts.
To summarize, unmarried young women did not wear their pockets outside their skirts to show off their needlework or to try to catch a man. (Honestly, can you imagine a young man vetting prospective wives by examining their pockets? I don’t think young men have changed that much in three hundred years . . . I think her face and figure would rank a bit higher than her needlework display.)
Check out these prints that show women wearing pockets. You’ll have to look closely on some.