in: Clothing, Featured, Style

• Last updated: October 6, 2023

A Man’s Pockets

Vintage man standing in yard with hands in pockets.

Last month we did an article about your great-grandpa’s daypacks — the small bags that soldiers and outdoorsmen of yore used to carry essential supplies for fighting, hunting, and exploring. Part of the rationale men gave for using these bags was that it wasn’t possible or desirable to carry everything in their pockets — small items were hard to dig out and heavy items weighed down their clothing.

That article got me wondering: when and why did men give up carrying bags in favor of toting everything around in their pockets? Small bags today, at least in North America, are usually derided as “murses.” And we’ve developed a special affinity for pockets — we like to share what we carry in ours, and you can even tell a man’s life story by surveying how the contents of his pockets change from decade to decade.

Today we’ll take a fascinating tour through the history of men’s pockets, talk about some of the most noteworthy kinds, and discuss how the pocket has earned a special place in the masculine heart.

From Tied-On Bags to Sewn-In Pouches: A Brief History of the Rise of Men’s Pockets

The word pocket is derived from the Old Northern French word “poque,” which meant bag. And up through the 19th century, if you looked up “pocket” in a dictionary, you would see it defined as “a small pouch or bag attached to or inserted in a garment.”

Ferdinand II, Archduke of Further Austria painting portrait.

Ferdinand II, Archduke of Further Austria, wears a proto-“pocket” — a bag hung from a belt or tied around the body. He’s also rockin’ a pretty sweet codpiece.

This is because the original pockets weren’t like the sewn-in pockets we know today, but rather separate bags detached from clothing. From the 15th until the mid-16th century, men and women carried essential items and currency in a pouch that was typically tied around the waist or hung from a belt. As thieves and “cutpurses” became more of a problem in the 17th century, people began to cut slits in their shirts, skirts, and pants, and tuck their pouches inside their clothing for safekeeping. This practice necessitated making the bags flatter and easier to reach into, so they would be more accessible and not create a significant bulge.

The names of the various things men carried in these tucked-away pouches were hyphenated with “pocket” to create a moniker that described their small size and portable nature. For example:

  • Pocket-handkerchief
  • Pocket-knife
  • Pocket-brandy (flask)
  • Pocket-pistol (Often a single-shot derringer-type gun. Also used to mean flask.)
  • Pocket-money
  • Pocket-book (While today “pocketbooks” mean lady’s handbags, a man’s pocket-book at this time was a small leather notebook-like case used for carrying papers, diary entries, notes, etc.)

As men’s garments became more form-fitting, it became harder to fit a pocket purse between clothing and body. The next obvious step then was to attach the pouches to the clothing itself, and tailors began to sew pocket bags into the seams of men’s breeches, and then into their coats. In the 18th century, pockets were added to vests, and in the 1900s, many kinds of men’s garments began to include a wide range of pockets: inside/outside breast pocket, watch pocket, side/hip pants pocket, ticket pocket, etc.

Vintage victorian illustration pickpocket robbing man.

Pickpockets loved the new trend towards men wearing garments with sewn-in pockets. It made it easier to steal their possessions!

For their part, women continued to carry pouches under their billowing dresses through the late 1800s. Accessed through a placket hole in the back of the skirt, these sort of internal, reverse fanny packs proved popular with pickpockets, and it became common for women to carry a small drawstring reticule in their hand instead. Attached pockets made their way into some women’s garments, but never quite took off as they did for men, as the more fitted fashions of the 20th century precluded their possibility — lest they ruin the line of the clothes. Women thus largely returned to using outside pockets – i.e., purses and handbags — while men embraced the use of inside, attached pockets. Thus the modern association of bags-and-women, pockets-and-men.

Adding Functionality to Style: 3 Classic Suit Pockets

Vintage african american black man wearing 3 piece suit.

Early pocket options on pants were fairly limited and straightforward: they were created in the waistband, straight across the top, or on the sides. The jacket was where more experimentation took place, and the choice of pockets indicated its level of formality; the general rule was (and is), that the more external layers of fabric — i.e. more pockets — the less sleek and sharp the garment, and the less formal it is.

There are 3 classic suit pockets that were popular in yesteryear, and continue to adorn suits today:

Suit jacket pockets illustration jetted flap patch pocket.

Jetted Pockets. The first jacket pockets were sewn inside the lining or seams of garments, and are called “jetted” pockets. In their simplest form, they consist of little more than a slit; if you look at the left breast of your suit jacket, you’ll likely see an example. Jetted pockets can also have flaps, and this is what you’ll probably see on the bottom hip pockets of your jacket. These flaps came into vogue at the beginning of the 20th century and were originally designed to protect the contents of the inner pouch from falling out and from getting wet with rain. When you went inside, and the flap was no longer in use, you tucked it into your pocket; this tradition is of course no longer practiced, and the flap is kept perennially outside the jacket. Suits that are the most formal, especially tuxedos, do away with flap pockets altogether to give the piece a more streamlined look.

Ticket Pockets. Another popular inside jacket pocket was the ticket pocket. Sitting above the right hip pocket, and about half the size, its purpose is easily guessed: it held a gentleman’s train ticket when he traveled by rail. In the 20th century it became known as a change or cash pocket, and it communicated that your suit had been custom tailored. Still today, few off-the-rack suits come with a ticket pocket, and they often must be specially ordered.

Vintage hunter on road with pointer dog wearing sporting jacket.

Patch pockets first adorned hunting and sporting jackets.

Patch Pockets. When gents of the 19th century desired additional pockets for storing their odds and ends while out in the countryside, tailors began adding patch pockets to their sport coats. A patch pocket consists of a piece of fabric sewn to the outside of a garment, forming one side of the pocket, with the other side formed by the material of the garment itself.

Patch pockets can have pleats that expand their capacity and flaps to protect their contents. The sporting men of yesteryear used them for storing provisions, cartridges, and various other supplies when hunting, shooting, riding horses, cycling, and playing golf and polo. Patch pockets were also adopted by that other quintessentially Victorian English type: the explorer. Safari jackets were outfitted with numerous pockets for storing one’s gun cartridges, field glasses, pipe, matches, notebook, etc.

Because they added an extra layer of fabric to a garment, patch pockets were considered the least formal kind of pocket, and still today are generally considered only appropriate for sport coats, rather than blazers or suit jackets. (What to know more about the differences between these three jackets? Click here.)

The Utilitarian: The Cargo Pocket

Patch pockets, with their rugged functionality, were unsurprisingly adopted by the military for both shirts and jackets. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the pocket would migrate south, attaching itself to men’s pants, expanding in size, and becoming known as the famous cargo pocket.

The British were the first to introduce the pants cargo pocket. In 1938, they adopted a revolutionarily functional and practical combat uniform dubbed “Battledress.” Battledress trousers came with a large map pocket positioned in the front by the left knee, and a right upper hip pocket that held a field dressing for first aid.

The cargo pocket was introduced to the States by Major William P. Yarborough, a commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. Dissatisfied with the current paratrooper jump suit — which consisted of a one-piece coverall worn over a regular infantry dress — Yarborough set out to create a uniform that would be more functional for their unique mission and distinguish the airborne forces from other soldiers. Yarborough developed special jump boots, as well as a fatigue uniform that included extra large pockets on both top and bottom — 4 on the jacket, 2 on the pants.

Vintage paratroopers in group wearing backpacks being briefed.

The breast pockets were slanted down and towards the center to give the paratrooper easier access when he was wearing his parachute harness, and the cargo thigh pockets expanded to hold ample supplies. The jacket’s collar also included a unique hidden dual-zippered knife pocket, which held a 3-inch switchblade. Should the jumper become caught in a tree, the knife could be used to cut himself free of parachute lines and the harness itself, though he was trained to employ it as a weapon as well. Some paratroopers also used the knife to cut a section from the parachute’s fabric, to be turned into a souvenir scarf commemorating the mission.

Dwight ike eisenhower addressing wwii troops paratroppers.

A paratrooper already shouldered 100lbs of equipment, and the jump suit’s pockets were handy for holding all the things that couldn’t be fit into the other bags and belts he had strapped to him. Pockets were often stuffed with socks, rations, and grenades, and the average paratrooper carried about 9lbs of gear in them.

Paratroopers’ pockets were in fact so heavy laden, that when they jumped on D-Day, the shock of the chute opening ripped the seams of the pockets open, spilling their contents all over Normandy. The paratroopers reinforced the seams with patches on subsequent jumps.

Wwii cargo pocket variations designs.

During WWII, the military experimented with a wide variety of cargo pocket designs. Some of the pockets were so big, and carried so much gear, that suspenders were necessary to keep the soldier’s pants up.

Wwii soldier uniform m1943 cargo pocket.

The design they eventually chose for the M-1943 uniform was unfortunately hard for the solider to access.

The Army, seeing the utility of the paratrooper jump suit, issued a new uniform in 1943 for the rest of its troops that included trousers with two large cargo pockets worn on the side. These cargo pockets were discontinued a few years later, and replaced with front patch pockets. They wouldn’t be re-introduced until the 1960s, when none other than William Yarborough (now a lieutenant general), redesigned the military’s jungle fatigues for combat in Vietnam.

Soldier in vietnam wading through river.

After a hiatus, cargo pant pockets returned to combat fatigues during the Vietnam War.

Drawing inspiration from the old paratrooper uniforms, he created a jacket with 4 large pockets, and trousers with 7, including two side cargo pockets. There was even a pocket within the left cargo pocket — though what it was supposed to be used for remained a mystery to the men. It was intended for a survival kit that was never issued; soldiers instead used it for cigarettes and small mementos.

Modern army combat uniform acu.

Today’s Army Combat Uniform (ACU) includes 5 pockets in the blouse, and 8 in the pants.

In the modern day, cargo pockets have of course found their way into civilian dress — becoming a ubiquitous part of men’s shorts and pants. But given the rule of thumb mentioned above — the more pockets a garment has, the less sleek/formal it is — it’s inadvisable to don cargo pants and shorts in situations where you want to appear more sharp and stylish. Pockets add bulk to a garment, even when they aren’t filled, and appear quite bulky and misshapen once packed with odds and ends. Cargo shorts and pants are thus best worn as intended — as functional attire for tactical, outdoor, and sporting pursuits.

Bags Vs. Pockets in the Modern Day

Given the rich history of the humble pocket, it’s not surprising we’ve become so attached to their attachment. Men’s pockets have for centuries held the components of millions of adventures and memorable moments: the handkerchief offered to a sad, but darn cute lady; the money used to buy a favorite book; the ticket for a cross-country adventure; the knife that saved a life.

Pockets represent the ultimate in functionality and minimalism. What you need is right at hand. And if you can’t fit it into your pockets, you have to do without it. (And if it turns out you needed that something after all, well, now you just get to practice the manly art of improvisation!)

This lack of fussiness likely has much to do with the persistence of pockets’ popularity amongst men, and the fact that, at least in America, the externally carried bag has yet to make a comeback.

Ridicule around “murses” is a bit much though, in my opinion. We’re in a cultural place where a man can carry a medium to large bag, or whatever fits in his pockets, but nothing in-between. Which is a little odd when you think about it. Yet I think I do understand the philosophy behind this mentality. You either travel super light and nimbly, or you’re full-on prepared, with the kind of gear and essentials you’ll need a full-sized daypack to carry. I don’t know if this mindset is completely rational, but it makes its own kind of manly sense.

With that in mind, next month we’ll be running a post on what you might consider carrying from day to day (the art of EDC!), and later in the year we’ll devote primers to some of mankind’s favorite carryalls, such as the messenger, the briefcase, and the satchel.

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