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Notes de lecture

Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900

London: Yale University Press, 2019. 264 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-253740
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Bibliographical reference

BURMAN, BARBARA and ARIANE FENNETAUX. The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900. London: Yale University Press, 2019. 264 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-253740

Full text

1“It has pockets!” Is there any higher praise a woman can give her clothes? Our contemporary appreciation for pockets hints at an unconscious longing for the days when bags weren’t expected to make statements—or perhaps a form of fashion phantom limb syndrome, since substantial pockets were an indispensable part of female dress for hundreds of years.

2Indeed, from the late seventeenth century to the Edwardian era, pockets were a rare constant in the meandering march of fashion, inhabiting a liminal space between outerwear and underwear, public and private—ubiquitous but usually unseen. Today, most English speakers know the nursery rhyme: “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it. Not a penny was there in it, only ribbon round it.” But even seasoned dix-huitièmistes who recognize the references to The Beggar’s Opera and a notorious English courtesan may wonder how a pocket can be “lost” and “found.”

3The answer lies in the materiality of early modern women’s pockets, which were not sewn into clothing but worn suspended from a ribbon around the waist, either alone or in pairs. They usually hung under the gown (which had slits in the side seams for easy access) and over the petticoats. These capacious carryalls looked and functioned more like purses than pockets, and could be highly decorative, often stitched and embroidered by the wearer herself. Yet the vast hooped skirts of the eighteenth century and the crinolines of the nineteenth kept them (mostly) out of sight and unmolested.

4As Lucy Locket taught us, however, pockets were easily lost—both physically and, as it turns out, metaphorically. The Pocket centers an object that has long hovered on the fringes of dress history, itself a fringe discipline. Its importance—its existence, even—has been forgotten. Yet authors Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux give this “pantechicon of a garment” its due, pedagogically turning it inside out. (26) As the authors assert, this is “not simply a book about tie-on pockets. It is a social and cultural history of women’s lives.” (15)

5There’s a lot to unpack here, literally and figuratively. The pocket’s origin story is mysterious; it was in use in England by the mid seventeenth century, but visual evidence suggests that it came from continental Europe. Pockets encompassed changing concepts of identity, privacy, and mobility over the early modern period; their materials reflect the increasing globalization of the textile trade. Women of all ages and classes wore pockets, and they kept wearing them into the early twentieth century; Burman and Fennetaux found that some school uniforms retained their tie-on pockets as late as the 1920s.

6Many pockets have survived in museum collections while the garments they accessorized have not. The authors analyzed nearly 400 surviving pockets, extracting a wealth of information about their construction, wear, and repair, despite often murky provenances. “Even a seemingly unremarkable pocket, when closely observed, begins to divulge a number of details.” (12)

7In addition to surviving objects, Burman and Fennetaux trace the presence of pockets in a broad array of interdisciplinary source material: paintings, prints, novels, court records, and newspaper ads for lost pockets (while probate inventories have proved fertile ground for social and fashion historians, they are less useful for pockets, which often fall into the generic category “wearing apparel.”) Pockets were a gift to satirists; in addition to being worn around the waist, they were “pear-shaped and open down the front” and thus “strongly evocative of female genitalia.” (46) The book sheds fresh light on familiar texts like Tom Jones, Pamela, Jane Eyre, and Adam Bede. “The pocket merits a close-up study in itself because what is small can recalibrate our vision of the large,” the authors assert, and prove their point by replicating the trick on fashion dolls with their own, even smaller pockets.

8Bulging pockets were often maligned in fiction and visual satire as “sites of disorder and excessive consumption”; in fact, surviving pockets suggest the exact opposite (113). Pockets were highly organized, their contents often distributed into interior compartments or smaller containers. Women who wore two pockets might designate one (generally the right-hand pocket) for objects in frequent use and the other (on the left) for long-term storage of savings or sentimental treasures. Pockets were typically made of repurposed materials; one extraordinary example is fashioned from a grenadier’s cap.

9While pockets themselves are fascinating objects of material culture, their contents also deserve attention. Like the apps on her phone, what a woman carried in her pockets revealed her activities, interests, and values. They served as containers for other containers: sewing kits, pocketbooks, purses, huswifes, and snuffboxes. They might store food and utensils, reading and writing materials, watches, or spectacles. The largest pair the authors examined measures 61.5 cm x 43.5 cm—bigger than the biggest Birkin bag.

10Above all, pockets held money, and thus speak to ownership and consumerism. At a time when women were denied property (the legal doctrine of coverture only being abolished in the 1880s in the United Kingdom) and privacy (multioccupancy being the norm), pockets served as portable vaults. When removed for the night, they could be stored full under a pillow or bed for security. Pockets provided a woman with room (if not a room) of her own. Regardless of how much cash it held, the pocket “could be an instrument of female empowerment, granting them mobility, autonomy, and agency.” (18)

11Pockets packed emotional weight, as well. Fanny Burney kept the current page of her journal in her pocket. Other women carried love letters and miniature portraits. The decoration of pockets, whether embroidered or inked, revealed their sentimental value: hearts, flowers, and initials or names, declaring attachment and ownership. Once example pictured is embroidered with its owner’s hair, less reticule than reliquary.

12Given their covetable contents, it’s not surprising that pockets frequently figured as accessories to crimes—ranging from the predictable pickpocketing and shoplifting to murder. The authors consulted the records of 572 Old Bailey court cases involving pockets, which are itemized in an appendix. Jack the Ripper’s victim Annie Chapman was found with her pocket “torn down the front and also at the side” in what the authors call a “macabre symbolic disembowelment.” (183) This is not the only example in the book of “womb-like” pocket with its “rounded uterine shapes” standing in for a vagina; a pocket also played a part in a grisly eighteenth-century infanticide (210, 211).

13The pocket was the rare garment that made the leap from the early modern period to the industrial age. Even when pockets began to be perceived as old-fashioned and countrified in the late nineteenth century, integrated pockets largely eluded women. Indeed, even the “robust skirted suits of the 1880s and 1890s, so beloved of historians as symbolic of the ‘new woman’,” frequently lacked them, while a man’s suit might easily have a dozen or two. “Whatever the style or social class, men’s fashions were united by a fraternity of pockets.” (25) Instead of disappearing, tie-on pockets got rebranded as “money aprons” or “underskirt bags.” Far from being confined to the poor and the provincial, “travelling pockets” were marketed as conveniences for international travelers toting tickets, timetables, and travel guides, and thus “associated with the upper classes and the stakes they had in empire building.” (161)

14The Pocket ambitiously (and successfully) sets out to close “divisions between academia and the museum sector.” (14) While the book is accessibly written and beautifully illustrated, however, its encyclopedic approach may be a deterrent to general readers with a finite appetite for pocket lore. At the same time, though, its unwavering focus on Britain, with no mention of Europe or the American colonies, where pockets were also worn, necessarily limits the scope of the book. Similarly, British-made pockets in foreign collections have not been included, and their stories remain untold.

15Nevertheless, the authors make a compelling case that the pocket deserves attention across a broad social and temporal span—and that there are few other objects that could tolerate such scrutiny. Like pockets themselves, Burman and Fennetaux speak eloquently of “the lives of women whose voices are often otherwise absent from the written historical record.” (185)

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Electronic reference

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900XVII-XVIII [Online], 79 | 2022, Online since 31 December 2022, connection on 13 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Historian, curator and journalist

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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