Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Discuss Pockets? or, Beware Bad Revisionist History

About a week ago I saw this article floating around the interwebs: The Disturbing Reason Women's Clothing Historically Never Had Pockets.  

I admit, my first thought was "What an amusing bit of baseless, invented historical poppycock" wrote a "sigh, this is silly" Facebook post, had a nice chat and laugh with my history nerd friends, and moved on.

But I keep seeing this idea resurfacing.

People.

No.

First off, a quick lesson in "hmmmology"--when you see "always" or "never" in a historical context, say "hmmm."  Say "hmmmm" really loud and then question if it's true or not.  Minimal research will almost always debunk an absolute claim like this.  Quick lesson in hmmmology over.

But to the point, this article ignores, completely, the historical reality.  To keep this focused on what I know well and to avoid running into major overtime with this post, let's just focus on the ("long") 18th century.  And in this context, sure.  Women's *clothing* typically did not have pockets.

You know what they did instead?  Yeah, tied GIANT BAGS under their clothes.

Sometimes very prettily embroidered bags:



Or quilted:



Or colorful:



Even patchworked:

Though quite often plain:



And these separate pockets are not small.  Many of us chatting on my Facebook post originally ripping this article extolled the virtues of the pocket--how much we can fit into it, how they're often worn in pairs for EVEN MORE storage, how it's so convenient that, no matter how many outfits you have, you never have to transfer stuff out of one pocket into another, and you never have to worry over your handbag matching your outfit or occasion, because it's under your clothes.  It's harder to steal from you when your purse isn't on your arm but buried under gown and petticoat.

Some of the claims circulated about the "politicizing" of pockets and demonstrating how the lack of pockets translates to oppression of women point to Liberty in Transportable Stuff.  If a woman can't carry much, she can't be independent of a man.  Further, she can't tote around Dangerous Things like weapons or (gasp!) books, rendering her innocuous.

While you may not be able to tuck a pistol or a paperback into your itty bitty Kate Spade crossbody, you can certainly carry both in your 18th century pockets.  The hypotheses of both Liberty in Transportable Stuff and Dangerous Things fails in the face of evidence in the 18th century context.

(And we haven't even gotten into bags, baskets, market wallets, and other means of toting your flotsam, or the history of such items in eras when neither men's NOR women's clothing had built-in pockets.)

Beyond being made-up foolishness, this is bad revisionist history.  And that's a problem on a few levels.

First, and this is important, *revisionist history as a category is not a bad thing.*  Revision means, at its most basic, re-seeing, and there is plenty to re-see when we approach history.  Look, even the giants of historical research who came before a) missed stuff; b) focused on different stuff; and c) had their own prejudices about what they saw.  Contemporary historians are doing great work investigating, for example, groups of people who have been largely ignored, including women, the enslaved, and common soldiers, and are producing work that illuminates the past by seeing what wasn't looked at before. Re-see, re-evaluate, re-vise--completely valid process.  (Christina of On Living History reminded me of Through the Needle's Eye: Women's Work in the Age of Revolution, which is a great example.)

The problem as I see it is that craparticles like this are how most of the public enters the dialogue of revising history, and instead of seeing it as a worthwhile inquiry into filling in the gaps and correcting missteps that the study of history has left thus far, sees instead either a political rallying ground or a series of convenient fictions for said rallying ground. That's a shame, as it de-legitimizes in the public perception the good work done by plenty of current historians by association.

Any time that historical inquiry or argument begins not with the evidence but with an agenda, there are bound to be problems.  That's not how historical research or inquiry works.  You don't start with the mindset of "liberating," "politicizing," or generally making your audience more "woke" without prejudicing yourself against what the historical record actually provides you.  The process of writing can't begin with "how can I politicize historical clothing to further my contemporary agenda? How can I show how clothes, specifically when it comes to pockets, are tools of oppression?"  It has to begin with, instead, "What did historical people actually DO? What did they WEAR? How and in what variations?"  Then, please.  Interpret those facts to your heart's content and we can debate them--interpretation is still open to critique and debate, but it should be based, first, on the historical record itself.  In this case, that record involves the material culture and images of the past as well as text, and we have examples in droves to work with.

The short article linked above was a redux of a longer piece on Racked which does a better job actually acknowledging the history of the pocket in women's clothes.  There are disagreements aplenty to be made here (as a most basic example, the author's claim that separate pockets "disappeared" during the French Revolution when you can see examples that clearly survive the age of the guillotine by scrolling up on this post), but you can see a sharp difference between what historical argument that considers the evidence and argument that trims it out completely look like.  The focus of the piece on Racked is, in truth, much narrower--a (frankly a bit shoddy) attempt to cover earlier centuries quickly transitions into an examination of pockets and the late 19th century and 20th century women's advocacy movements--and here the author has enough historical evidence to posit an argument that women then saw pockets as tied to their personal liberty.

Does this prove a damn thing about 18th century women and pockets? Nope.  Does it provide ample reason for us to classify the early 19th century reticule as a tool of oppression? Nope (and the author should really not have tried).  Are there "always and never" statements to be made? Absolutely NOPE.  But it does provide an interesting historical context and conversation.  Exploring how women utilized and thought about the pockets in their clothing during a time of transitional thinking about women's rights? Re-seeing and re-evaluating history in a potentially productive way. (I say potentially because the piece is still short and quite incomplete, written, clearly, for a public rather than academic audience.)  Compare to "never had pockets=OPPRESSION!" as demonstrated above--huge difference.