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 By the early 1800s, pockets had been replaced by drawstring bags called reticules.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 images that show women or girls wearing pockets.
June 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm (Edit)
I always look forward to new posts. Thanks so much for keeping this up! About the end date on hanging pockets, though, the clingy neoclassical styles that led to their demise were long gone by the 1840s (and reticules long in use). See http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/history-of-pockets/ for more.
June 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm (Edit)
Yes, you are correct. I must have mixed up some dates. I’ll make the change.
June 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
While I agree they were not worn on the outside, the dates are off. The straight styles of the Empire period were worn from the 1790s through the 1820’s and that is the period that reticules were used. Pockets were popular again in the 1840s-1860s when wider skirts and then hoops were worn.
June 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm (Edit)
Will make that change. Let me know if it needs more work. Thanks.
June 19, 2012 at 12:05 am (Edit)
To add to what Liz pointed out, the pockets of the 1850’s-60’s were sewn into the skirts of the dress, not made as an accessory.
This myth seems almost related to the one I’ve heard about tying one’s apron strings in front or back depending on one’s marital status…which always seems like so much hogwash to me, but hey, I’ve been wrong before!
September 12, 2012 at 11:42 am (Edit)
I’ve just discovered your blog looking for info on pockets. What a great discovery! Thank you. The only thing I can add is that pockets were voluminous even later than the 1860’s. There’s a lovely description in Gwen Raverat’s memoir ‘Period Piece: A Victorian Childhood’ (she was born ca. 1885) in which she laments the loss of proper pockets in women’s clothing and lists what she kept in her pockets ‘always pencils and india-rubbers, and a small sketch book and a very large pocket-knife, besides much string, nails, horse-chestnuts, lumps of sugar, bits of bread and butter a pair of scissors and many other useful objects [She must have been a slightly unusual girl!] Sometimes even a handkerchief and for a year or two I carried around a small book of Rembrandt etchings.’
Mary Miley says:
September 12, 2012 at 11:47 am (Edit)
Wow, that was one helluva pocket Miss Gwen wore!