Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.
Unlike clothing of today, women’s dress of the eighteenth century did not contain pockets. Instead they were worn as separate items. Often in pairs but also singly, they were tied around the waist by a ribbon or tape or were buttoned to underclothing. Pockets would have sat underneath the gown, hoops or apron and were accessed quite simply through openings in the side seams of the gown and petticoat.
In a society with very little privacy, women’s tie-on pockets, worn close to the body, embodied security and secrecy for one’s personal possessions. In two satirical prints by James Gillray, the artist uses pockets – or Indispensables as they were called – as metaphors for invaded private space. In The Man of Feeling in Search of Indispensables (1800), a critique on the Dutch Prince William V of Orange, the ‘pocket’ is a sexual euphemism, encroached upon by the lecherous prince; while in Political Ravishment, Or the Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street in Danger (1797), the ‘pocket’ is both sexual and economic; representing the symbolic rape and pillage of the Bank of England at the hands of William Pitt the Younger’s government during war time.
The materials used for constructing and decorating pockets naturally varied depending on the wealth of the owner and the availability of fabrics. These might by newly bought or even recycled from a dress no longer worn. Despite this, pockets tended to be of a similar shape. Often tear-dropped, triangular or oval, they were commonly wider at the base and had a vertical slit running halfway from the top through which the contents could be accessed.
Pockets were particularly personal items, only to be seen and used by the wearer. Elaborately embroidered with floral designs, birds and other animals, they were highly individual objects. While some pockets were professionally made, ladies often created and personalised their own. For those lacking inspiration, The Ladies Magazine provided pull-out design patterns for embroidering not only pockets but aprons, work bags and waistcoats. The hours evidently spent in creating these hidden pieces and the quality of workmanship indicates their high value and importance to the wearer.
Incredibly useful objects, pockets could carry those personal items a lady required perhaps when on a social visit to friends, going shopping or out for an evening at the theatre. At a time when women, especially those from the upper classes, had minimal privacy, they offered a secret place for keeping valuable and private items, such as money or a letter, safe from prying eyes.
The revolutionary silhouette for gowns introduced in the 1790s spawned a new trend for carrying one’s personal belongings. In the absence of large hoops and layers of petticoats, it was difficult to wear pockets without compromising the smooth lines of Neoclassical dresses. The solution was the reticule: a small, decorative, drawstring handbag, its name derived from reticulum, Latin for ‘net’. The elegant reticule, or its smaller cousin the purse, began to eclipse the popularity of pockets, which were increasingly viewed as old-fashioned. In 1799, the Whitehall Evening Post remarked upon ‘the total abjuration of the female pocket. These heavy appendages are no more at present than keys at a girdle’. Despite this claim, tie-on pockets endured, and continued to be worn into the late-nineteenth century.