Book Review: ‘Pockets,’ by Hannah Carlson


POCKETS: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close, by Hannah Carlson

This review of Hannah Carlson’s cultural study of pockets was grievously delayed. Why? Your critic lost her keys … again. No, they weren’t AirTagged.

Before the little jinglers were located, shoved in a side compartment of the carrier my family had used to adopt two distracting kittens, I was positive they’d been dropped in the parking lot of the animal shelter, two hours away upstate, and was anxiously strategizing how to coax the overworked staff into conducting a search.

But a friend, whose wife is always losing things, had reassured me that the keys would be found closer to home. “They’re usually in a pocket,” he said with the natural calm of someone whose clothing comes generously outfitted with them. In other words, a man.

“Pocket sexism” is a central tenet of Carlson’s book, whose topic might sound so mundane as to be a parody, à la that musical number about stools in Christopher Guest’s 1996 masterpiece “Waiting for Guffman.” Like envelopes or test tubes, pockets are defined by empty space. Without contents they are nothing but potential: a merely ornamental pocket being commentary at best, deeply frustrating at worst. They are waiting for stuff.

Carlson, a lecturer in dress history at the Rhode Island School of Design, painstakingly traces how the acquisition of pockets was — and to some extent still is — a rite of passage in Western culture for boys but not girls. “She has THINGS TO HOLD, like rocks and Power Rangers,” she quotes one mother imploring clothing manufacturers in a viral tweet about the deficit in her toddler’s wardrobe. “She’s resorted to putting stuff down her shirt.”

For at least 100 years, American magazines, fiction and art depicted with affectionate wonderment the oddments young lads might Tom Sawyerishly shove into the sides of their pants, from pennywhistles and knives, to marbles and bottle caps, to a live rat or turtle. But not their own hands, authority figures scolded, as this would bring them all too close to the genitals — though such a gesture eventually came to signal “insouciance and outlaw cool.”

James Dean and his jeans!, I thought immediately. They’re not in these pages, far more highbrow and thoughtful than your standard-issue fashion monograph; nor are the members of the Lollipop Guild in “The Wizard of Oz,” thrusting thumbs down into their functional breeches after their feminine counterparts, the Lullaby League, twirl away in decorative tutus.

Walt Whitman is here, upending and offending the upright Victorians with his revolutionary frontispiece portrait for “Leaves of Grass,” hand defiantly in pocket. So is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, swimming with his clothes stuffed full of biscuits. Unlike female kangaroos, human women (and other historically second-class citizens) have alway had a harder time securing storage close to their person. Emily Dickinson was one of the few who argued successfully with her dressmaker to get a compartment for pencil and paper. She “had a room of her own — and a reliable pocket,” Carlson writes.

Such modifications are rare in America, where the feminine silhouette has been so sacrosanct that even the coats of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II lacked adequate storage. “Did even a pack of cigarettes threaten to disfigure the breast, making it lumpy and misshapen, a sort of metaphor for servicemen’s worst fears — that after joining the army, women would no longer be recognizable as women ?” the author wonders.

And yet the small addition of a pocket can represent freedom in its most resonant sense. The author tells of runaway slaves tailoring their garments to better elude capture: adding “functional space useful in flight while also critically transforming a mean livery of slavery — pocketless coats — into more distinguished, worldly garb.”

Pockets have long amounted to privilege, and once you start noticing their presence, or their conspicuous absence, you won’t be able to stop. “Deceitful men all their 20 pockets aren’t enough for their lies” Molly Bloom thinks in the final soliloquy of “Ulysses,” as another friend (female), who once took the trouble to sew some into a vintage fleece jacket, reminded me. In her memoir of Susan Sontag, Sigrid Nunez wrote of the older woman perplexed by purses and refusing to carry one.

But the line between purse and pocket is porous, which makes for some taxonomic confusion. Handbags can also be legally searched by police, in instances when pockets can’t, and may even serve as weapons (think of the neo-Nazi ambushed by “The Woman with the Handbag” in the famous Swedish photo). I have watched in fascination as the fanny pack has migrated militaristically upward to become a unisex crossbody sling.

As technology advances, any body-adjacent storage seems increasingly antique. Carrying around anything but the absolute essentials (“to date, no one has invented a digital form of the handkerchief,” Carlson points out) has gone from marker of prosperity to commonness. We’re already well on our way to pocketlessness with smartwatches and digital wallets; in the future, maybe we’ll just incline our heads at the door rather than being burdened with keys.

In the meantime, if the popular read-it-later app Pocket doesn’t aggregate this article, I’ll eat my hat.

POCKETS: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close | By Hannah Carlson | Illustrated | 320 pp. | Algonquin Books | $35


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