29 February 2024

Review: Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson audiobook cover

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson was an interesting read. I listened to the audiobook read by Stephanie Cannon and while I have a passing and somewhat shallow interest in the history of pockets, I was reasonably entertained here.

According to her bio, Hannah Carlson teaches dress history and is a conservator with a PhD in material culture, so she knows her subject matter.

After the medieval period when the purse was a separate item, men wore their purse hanging from their belt, while women wore theirs hanging around mid thigh, meaning that it swung when the wearer walked. In addition, the placement of one's purse could be provocative, and held a surprising (to me) amount of erotic appeal.
"How you wore your purse distinguished between masculine and feminine dress, but the purse itself did not belong to a single gender." Chapter 5
Carlson tells us the word 'pocket' is a borrowing of the French word for bag, and moves through history touching on the fashion for cod pieces, the dagger purse and the dangers of men carrying hidden weapons and pistols in their newly concealed pockets.

What about women's fashion? In Chapter 8, the author tells us that pockets for women have never been as popular in women's clothing as in men's. I was surprised to learn that in the 1800s, some dressmakers created hidden pockets in the bustle of ladies skirts. Located in the middle of the lower back in an early form of bum bag, women would turn themselves in circles trying to twist and retrieve items impractically stored in their bustle pocket.

I enjoyed the commentary about men and courtiers standing and walking with their hands in their pockets and the uproar and claims of indecency made by fellow citizens at the time. I couldn't help but smile in recognition here, as I recall ranting about the trend in the 1990s that saw baggy pants worn low enough to display the wearer's briefs/boxers/g-string and in some cases so low as to cause the wearer to adopt a ridiculous style of walking to prevent their pants from falling down.

The gender politics of pockets and fashion inequality don't really interest me, but the introduction 500 years ago of pockets sewn into men's pants had an unexpected impact on the way men walked and even the way that they stood, some choosing to put a hand inside their pocket or their waistcoat.
"In a pose promulgated by fashionable people, and upheld by professionals, the aristocrat standing at his ease appeared as if he had wrapped himself in a loose embrace. In Britain, painters seized on the hand in waistcoat gesture as a popular portrait formula, believing it depicted qualities of modesty and reserve." Chapter 7
It's interesting to see this pose now and not wonder what the 'portrait pose' is for our time; perhaps it's the flamingo pose or the bambi pose. (Both legitimate poses trending on Instagram right now, but that's 30 mins of valuable reading time I'll never get back after searching 'portrait poses over time').

Back to the book, and Carlson swiftly moves towards the present day, describing the shift from pockets to purses and handbags and the endless battle between functionality versus fashion.

I enjoyed the author's assessment of the explosion in pocket popularity in the 1990s with the resurgence of cargo pants, but perhaps my favourite line from the book was the optimism in going out without pockets or a handbag to carry necessities like keys, tissues, phone, lip balm etc.
"In pared down designs, the person announces their unconcern; their belief that nothing is required and that nothing will go wrong." Chapter 11
That's it exactly! I'm never that optimistic and always take more than I end up needing.

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson is recommended for readers with an interest in micro history, fashion and gender politics. This 3 star rating is largely reflective of my interest level in the topic and not representative of the author's knowledge of the subject, which is deep. 

I still have The Pocket - A Hidden History of Women's Lives, 1660–1900 by Barbara Burman on my virtual TBR pile but I think I might have well and truly scratched that itch here.

My Rating:

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  1. I’m intrigued by this, I these sort of micro history’s always capture my attention. Thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, it's an interesting topic and I love micro histories too!


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