In search of perfect pockets

The changing-room mirror is telling a sad story. I am the main protagonist. And my pants are the evil mastermind threatening chaos and destruction. 

When did they begin to look so bad? Why did no one who cares about me let me know? I ask the mirror this and more as I stand there staring at my overflowing pant pockets: my phone, my wallet, my car keys and my lip balm are all pushing up against the taut and yet somehow sagging fabric of my pants. 

The epiphany is sobering. And yet it seems that I am not alone in questioning the tendency for men, in particular, to cram their possessions into the pockets of their pants.

My daily essentials: phone, sunglasses, keys and wallet and my claustrophobic jean pockets. Photo: Gregory McFerran.

Martin Juhl Mikkelsen, a lecturer at Copenhagen Business Academy and a menswear influencer on instagram (@thesoftarmour), believes men rarely look good with stuff stuffed into their pant pockets, whether they are wearing casual or formal clothing.

Juhl Mikkelsen prefers to wear his Barbour Beaufort waxed jacket or his army-green ripstop jungle jacket to keep his personal belongings on his person and at an arms-reach away. They both feature heavily on his instagram as he wears them often over tailoring; the casual-infused look suits well the relaxing-formality of office attire evident within the business world. 

“Personally, I feel way more at ease with my phone, card and sunglasses in the pocket of my jacket or sports jacket [rather] than in the pockets of my pants. There is something both elegant and functional about it,” says Juhl Mikkelsen.

From left to right: Universal Works MW Fatigue Jacket In Light Olive Twill (AUD$197.00 at Universal Works) and MADS RIPSTOP TAB SERIES (USD$365 at Norse Projects).

Most pants, whether jeans, chinos or tailored trousers are often cut without a lot of attention to whether the pockets are used or not – or indeed to what the pockets are used for. A clean drape and line on the thigh can look real nice but is disturbed by a phone bulging in the pocket.

Martin Juhl Mikkelsen

After spending some time trying to come up with an alternative to pant pockets, I have to agree jackets may offer a surprisingly superior alternative. Specifically jackets with patch or bellow pockets found at hip height which work to benefit silhouette by providing you a place to store your stuff which is both functional and more secure when compared to the now empty pockets of my pants. 

Patch pockets come in a varying array of styles and yet all are designed to be functional additions to a jacket. Photo: Gregory McFerran.

These pockets are sewn onto the top of pre-existing fabric and tend to be rectangular or square in shape. Some have flaps which cover their opening while others do not. And some like the bellow pocket have extra pleated fabric integrated into their design which allows them to expand outwards and carry more stuff.

From left to right: STAVANGER GORE-TEX INFINIUM DOWN PARKA (USD$1030 at Norse Projects) and Double-Face Bonded Cotton Mac ($510 at Paul Smith).

Fashion design principal teaching fellow at the University of Southampton and author of ‘Menswear’ John Hopkins also considers the use of pants pockets to be a common fashion mistake.  

He says he avoids putting his possessions in his pants pockets “as this can distort their shape and inhibit movement, particularly when sitting down. He is conscious of the issue and yet says the style and fabric of a pair of pants must also be taken into consideration. 

“For example, tailored pants also referred to as trousers, are cut to fit and compliment the contour of the figure. A bulging pocket around the hip area would look unsightly and interfere with the line of a suit jacket if it was worn together. However, this would be less of an issue if I was wearing cargo shorts for example.”   

Hopkins, who was at onetime the senior womenswear designer at Burberry, says the issue tends to affect more men than women.  

“I find that men, much more than women, use their pockets to carry objects and personal items without much regard to their appearance.,” he says. “There are some historical reasons for this, as menswear has traditionally included pockets in garments more [so] than womenswear.”

He says this reality, paired with the stereotype that women, not men, use handbags is the reason men depend so much more upon pant pockets than women do.

Freelance patter maker and lecturer in fashion and textile design at Perth North Metropolitan TAFE Anja Mueke says the reason why historically womenswear has lacked pockets or has only had very small pockets is because of the way women have been perceived in the past to play “more of an ornamental role in society”. 

“Men needed to carry things because they were seen to be doing things. So, it’s not really until after WW1, at least in western clothing, that you see the introduction of pockets [into womenswear].”

Anja Mueke

She says the reason for this is thanks to the entering en-masse of women into the workforce during the war. She says women earned pockets as they were finally “seen to be doing things” and yet despite this initial introduction of the pocket to womenswear, gendered stereotypes surrounding pockets remained relatively unchanged for years to come.

Mueke says the fashions of the time changing to privilege a reduced silhouette and handbags becoming once again dominant in womenswear coupled with the return of men from war are all reason as to why this was the case.

From left to right: The North Face Sierra Men’s Down Parka Jacket (£339.99 at Outsiders Store) and BLUE WATER REPELLENT DOWN JACKET (€637.50 at Fursac).

Today, even when the number of pockets on men’s pants supposedly matches that of women’s there is often still inequality at play. A study by ‘The Pudding’, an online publication producing visual essays, found that across 80 different pairs of blue jeans, women’s pockets were 48 per cent shorter and 6.5 per cent narrower than those of men’s. 

Mueke says the stuff we carry day to day is growing in size and weight, so it is not as simple as having bigger pockets nor storing stuff purely in generic jacket pockets. Instead, she suggests men wear jackets with “bellow pockets” that are “designed to carry and hold weight”.

She says these types of jackets and pockets are useful but also wants to emphasise the usefulness of bags as another worthy solution. 

John Hopkins agrees.

“These days men have plenty of options for carrying personal items such as wearing a small backpack or similar bag over their shoulder,” he says. Which as a suggestion brings us full circle, back to what pockets used to be.

The modern-day pant pocket traces its lineage back to the 15th and 16th century when the masses tied little bags or pouches around their hips (the word pocket actually stemming from the Northern French word ‘poque’, meaning bag). These bags — perhaps more akin to the bumbag and fanny pack of today — were eventually lowered through ‘fitches’ (little slits or cuts in the fabric of one’s clothing) so to hide the wearer’s personal belongings from ‘cutpurses’ and thieves which were becoming a prominent issue in the 1800s. While, it was only towards the end of the 1900s that the pocket we take for granted today became commonly sewn into men’s pants. 

From left to right: The North Face ThermoBall Mountain Men’s Vest (£169.99 at Outsiders Store) and Herringbone-Twill Chore Jacket ($510.00 at Paul Smith).

Freelance writer, digital nomad and blogger of Travel Write Steve Calvert says culture and climate determines how someone might carry their stuff. 

He says he seldom sees men carrying around ‘man bags’ in the UK. Yet his Bulgarian friends, like many from the Balkans, are much more likely to carry ‘man bags’.

Calvert also says in hotter climes around the world it is much harder to wear a jacket with patch or bellow pockets and not become uncomfortably hot.

The argument is sound. And yet the damage to silhouette is largely reduced or made negligible when one is wearing shorts. Cargo shorts don’t extend far enough down nor are very form fitting and so aren’t greatly disturbed by a phone and wallet in the pocket like pants can be.

But when the opportunity does present itself, Martin Juhl Mikkelsen presents another option.

“For those in warmer climates, a linen over-shirt can be a good solution, as the linen allows air to flow, but you still have the functionality of the pockets.”

From left to right: The North Face McMurdo Men’s Jacket (£449.99 at Outsiders Store) and Universal Works Bakers Jacket In Cumin Cord ($369 at Universal Works).

It comes down to personal preference, according to principal tailor of Zenith Tailors Joseph Jok.

“Let’s say you are wearing very skinny jeans and you put a wallet or a phone which is very bulky in your pocket,” he says. “It will look like you have a lump on your thigh. But on the other hand, someone can have baggy jeans, carrying a lot of things in their pockets and you won’t even notice. So it comes down to aesthetics.”

He says he normally carries a bag for his possessions so to not damage the silhouette of his outfit. 

“Do I believe that slim fit looks good? Yes, I do. But it depends on the body shape. Do I believe it is designed to carry stuff in your pocket? No, it’s not functional nor practical for that.”

Jok speaks most however to the security a patch or bellow pocket on a jacket can provide its user. He says there is a greater level of awareness of the area surrounding these pockets which makes it harder for someone to reach their hands inside and steal something. He says it is also less likely something might slip out of them when you sit down. 

From left to right: Barbour Hooded Domus Jacket (at Barbour) and Barbour Ashby Jacket (at Barbour).

I don’t need convincing. I’ve already been converted, as has Martin Juhl Mikklesen.

“Where can I store my stuff?” he says. “Some men carry around small bags and that probably works for them, but I resort to another solution: Jackets.”

Categories: General