The Gender Politics of Pockets

The iPhone 6 may be the great catalyst in including this oft-ignored aspect of women's fashion.

I am one of the 10 million people who acquired an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus ten days ago.

Coming from Planet Android, I wasn’t as put off by the larger dimensions as everyone else in the technosphere seemed to be. But I was, as usual, put off by one thing that both the Apple product and its archnemesis from Google shared: the unpocketability of the phone, particularly by females.

This isn’t a new problem for women. Our skinny jeans have pockets, but there is no way an object bigger than a standard issue ID card fits in the front, and everyone knows that slipping a phone in your back pocket is an invitation for a treacherous dive into a toilet, or a backflip resulting in heartbreaking shatters. Purses have enclosures that were once suitable for the flip phone generation but have since become too snug for newer models. Throwing it into the main compartment seems risky, at best.

But the biggest problem might be the lack of pockets in the first place: women's slacks, dresses, and blazers often have no pockets, or worse, “fake” pockets that serve no utilitarian purpose besides sartorially leading the wearer on to believe they have a handy wardrobe aide, until it’s too late.

So how can an industry that focuses on women—whether it be models or products created primarily for a female demographic—consistently dodge the very people it markets to? Camilla Olson, creative director of an eponymous high tech fashion firm, points to inherent sexism within the industry. Mid-range fashion is a male dominated business, driven not by form and function, but by design and how fabric best drapes the body.

“I honestly believe the fashion industry is not helping women advance,” Olson said. And the lack of functional designs for women is one example. "We [women] know clearly we need pockets to carry technology and I think it’s expected we are going to carry a purse. When we’re working we don’t carry purses around. A pocket is a reasonable thing.”

Sara Kozlowski, who works in professional development at the Council of Fashion Designers of America and is a visiting critic with Parsons The New School of Design, is more blunt. She squarely places the blame on fast fashion labels busily churning out copies of high-end designs that aren’t adapted to the lives of a normal person who isn’t strutting down a runway.

“I think when you’re going to the upper price points of designer clothes, people tend to be less conscious of trends and more into quality and longevity,” Kozlowski said. So for them, it makes sense not to design around the latest smartphone model. “But in mid-market, contemporary brands, trends are what drive the industry. In that regard, it’s an epic fail.”

Olson believes the industry is overly focused on the visual appeal of clothing rather than how it can help women—and men, for that matter—live simpler, easier lives. She thinks it’s this preoccupation that’s kept the fashion industry from becoming relevant in today’s technocentric society.

“I find it discouraging,” Olson said. “Fashion looks selectively at who they let in and keeps women at a certain place. It’s not helping women move forward in the workplace.” Olson says that some designers have deemed pockets “too ugly” for clothing, while others simply don't think women need them. And these decisions, she says, have created a chasm in women’s fashion, and hold women back.

A man can simply swipe up his keys and iPhone on the way to a rendezvous with co-workers and slip them into his pocket. A woman on the way to that same meeting has to either carry those items in her hand, or bring a whole purse with her—a definitive, silent sign that she is a woman.

Fashion fans know that it takes time for new designs to go from runway to the streets, and, in the case of adjusting pockets in fashion, forecasters are looking at Fall 2015 for the earliest adopters of iPhone 6 pocketability. The Spring 2015 lines we saw featured on the latest slew of Fashion Weeks were developed six months before the season, according to Olson, with designs sketched out about six months before that. Given that the release of iPhone renditions are often top secret affairs, the timetable isn’t looking too promising for pockets in the next year or so. But given that designers have had years of large smartphone designs from other companies beyond the ballyhooed iPhone, expectations for a pocket revolution aren’t too high.

Conditions are ripe for a revolution in pockets for women—but while we’re beginning to get places to put things, the revolution will not be swift.

“More women are expecting and demanding pockets,” Olson said of trends in the industry. “I was hearing more about pockets on the runway in recent shows. Pockets are becoming more interesting, but they aren’t the size to carry around an iPhone, much less an iPhone [6] Plus.”

However convenient pockets may be, they may not always be the ideal solution, Olson told me. Women’s pockets are often located near the hip area, where many women would prefer not to attract attention. For that problem, Olson thinks a holster-type of product would work best—a compromise between having a purse and placing an unsightly bulge around what is culturally perceived in the West as a “problem area.”

“It’s got to be an accessories solution,” she theorized. “Chanel just came out with a holster type of thing that is really, really pretty. Or a fanny pack that was stylish. Or a shape to wear about [the body]. But not belts. Something that’s comfortable, that’s important.”

Kozlowski thinks sporting goods for women have a head start on how to stylishly integrate pockets into female wardrobes.

“Active brands are relevant,” she said, referring to running designs that seamlessly maintain shape while holding technology. “Patagonia has high levels of functionality. It’s all about the architecture of the garments. You can’t be too gadgety—if form overtakes function, it won’t be elegant. You have to be elegant.”

It’s not as if this thought process is revolutionary with regards to moving the pocket to another location: There are shirts that cleverly disguise your phone, belts that double as hiding places for your beloved device, and even a bra that takes the term “bosom friend” to a whole new level. (Cargo pants, however, have been unanimously dissed by the fashion savvy as the solution of choice for the smartphone dilemma women face.)

That said, most designers don’t consider pockets as part of the functionality of women’s clothes just yet—they’re still looking at purses as the way for women to carry their smartphones and other technological devices. And surprisingly, some major brands haven’t come up with a clear plan about how to design for new technology. Tom Mora, head of women’s design at J. Crew, the preppy line that feeds into many a work wardrobe, acknowledged that technology such as tablets and smartphones are nearly impossible to live without. But as to what exactly J. Crew—or other brands—would do to fit these devices into clothing was vague; Mora simply wrote in an email that J. Crew “consider[s] every aspect of the way our customers live their lives … We think about these details, whether it’s introducing new tech accessories for the new iPhone 6, or special interior pockets to carry the various generations of iPads or tablets.” Mora admitted, however, that there’s nothing that fits that description available from J. Crew at the moment.

Kozlowski agrees with Olson that most companies are driven by how the product appears on a body, and have to be reminded that fashion serves a purpose beyond beauty.

“Things are just more aesthetically driven to silhouette and embellishment and approach to design in general,” she said. “I have to remind my students [if they’re designing a] $5000 coat that they might want a pocket.”

Still, it’s “curious” to Olson that it took six generations of the iPhone and multiple other smartphone iterations to incite debate about pockets.

The bright side to a lack of pockets for women? #Bendghazi, Apple’s bendy phone scandal, probably isn’t as much of a problem.