An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close

New Release


By Hannah Carlson

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$44.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 12, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

“Who knew the humble pocket could hold so much history? In this enthralling and always surprising account, Hannah Carlson turns the pocket inside out and out tumble pocket watches, coins, pistols, and a riveting centuries-long social and political history.” Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States

Pockets "showcases the best features of cultural history: a lively combination of visual, literary and documentary evidence. As sumptuously illustrated as it is learned … this highly inventive and original book demands a pocket sequel.” 
Jane Kamensky, Wall Street Journal

Who gets pockets, and why?

It’s a subject that stirs up plenty of passion: Why do men’s clothes have so many pockets and women’s so few? And why are the pockets on women’s clothes often too small to fit phones, if they even open at all? In her captivating book, Hannah Carlson, a lecturer in dress history at the Rhode Island School of Design, reveals the issues of gender politics, security, sexuality, power, and privilege tucked inside our pockets.

Throughout the medieval era in Europe, the purse was an almost universal dress feature. But when tailors stitched the first pockets into men’s trousers five hundred years ago, it ignited controversy and introduced a range of social issues that we continue to wrestle with today, from concealed pistols to gender inequality. See: #GiveMePocketsOrGiveMeDeath.

Filled with incredible images, this microhistory of the humble pocket uncovers what pockets tell us about ourselves: How is it that putting your hands in your pockets can be seen as a sign of laziness, arrogance, confidence, or perversion? Walt Whitman’s author photograph, hand in pocket, for Leaves of Grass seemed like an affront to middle-class respectability. When W.E.B. Du Bois posed for a portrait, his pocketed hands signaled defiant coolness.

And what else might be hiding in the history of our pockets? (There’s a reason that the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets are the most popular exhibit at the Library of Congress.) Thinking about the future, Carlson asks whether we will still want pockets when our clothes contain “smart” textiles that incorporate our IDs and credit cards.

Pockets is for the legions of people obsessed with pockets and their absence, and for anyone interested in how our clothes influence the way we navigate the world.


Throughout Pockets, I have endeavored to use terms that designers, makers, and individuals have used to identify themselves or their occupations. Where the book moves into the present day I have endeavored to recognize the advances in our understanding of gender fluidity and expression. The apparel industry still distinguishes men’s wear from women’s wear, but any history of the pocket cannot help but recognize, as this one does, the material limitations and structural inequities and inconsistencies that follow from enforcing specific gendered and binary ways that people may engage with the world.

Figure 1. Front cover of the Clemens family copy of The Chronicle of the Cid, an 1883 edition of a twelfth-century epic poem. Inscribed “Merry Christmas to Clara Clemens / 1884 / from Papa.”

2 Pocket Proliferation: Housing “the Workmanship of a Hundred Tradesmen”

Figure 1. Illustration from Jonathan Swift’s The Adventures of Captain Gulliver, in a Voyage to the Islands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, 1776. In this children’s edition of Gulliver’s Travels, the castaway awakens in Lilliput.

3 Pocket Attitudes: “But What Do Your Hands Do in Your Pocket?”

Figure 1. Homme de qualité en habit de garni d’agréments, by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean, 1683. Dressed in a casual suit without a waistcoat, the relaxed courtier depicted in this French fashion plate holds one hand in his breeches pocket, an early example of the familiar hands-in-pockets attitude.

4 Pocket Sexism: “Why We Oppose Pockets for Women”

Figure 1. Portrait of Harriet Campbell, by Ammi Phillips, ca. 1815.

5 Pocket Inventories: “Not a Penny Was There in It”

Figure 1. One Year’s Dungaree Debris, by Ralph Morse, published in Life, April 8, 1957. Bobby and Peter Paulding of Millwood, New York, pose with the objects their mother collected from their pockets over the course of a year.

6 Pocket Play: Designing for “Doubly Decorative Value”

Figure 1. Christian Dior day suit, photograph by Arik Nepo, published in “The News in Paris,” Vogue, March 15, 1949. With his “calla-lily pockets” Dior helped the “pocket theme” dominate the spring Paris collections in 1949.

7 Pocket Utopias: Dreaming of a Pocketless World

Figure 1. Simone d’Aillencourt, in a dress by Trigere, by Richard Avedon, Cape Canaveral, Florida, November 13, 1959.

Illustration Sources and Credits


Days after proposing this project as a dissertation I tried to get out of it, cognizant of the charge that pockets are too small to carry anything of real significance. I spent the time imagining, with some accuracy as it turns out, the raised eyebrows that were to follow. You mean, you are writing about pockets, like this one in my pants? Huh. Susan Mizruchi at Boston University not only encouraged me to continue but rolled her eyes demonstratively when she heard my alternative suggestions—a rare bit of reverse psychology during a mentorship that was unfailingly supportive.

In returning to pockets years later, I encountered many other cheerleaders whose interest got the ball rolling. Podcasters Piers Gelly and Avery Trufelman asked insightful questions; I am inspired by their spirited curiosity and storytelling prowess. My agent, Susan Ginsburg, saw potential for a book. She offered always wise counsel and, with Catherine Bradshaw, taught me the ropes. I am grateful to Amy Gash at Algonquin Books for her confidence in this project and for her keen advice in shaping its arc. I truly enjoyed our conversations, even when we had to grapple with real conundrums. I thank the whole team at Algonquin for stewarding this book through production and for their care in making it beautiful.

Much of the writing occurred during that first isolating pandemic year, when time felt amorphous and the being alone-with-people camaraderie of cafes and libraries was not an option. The experience was made much less lonely, however, with the help of an unexpected writing partner, my father Robert Carlson, who gallantly took on an unfamiliar field—and decidedly unlawyerly writing style—with assurance. He is a canny, sometimes ruthless editor and although he always hedged his comments as mere suggestion, I knew when I received some version of the “we need to talk” text that something I had attempted had really missed the mark. He is practically allergic to jargon, and if any remains, it is my fault alone. Thanks, Dad. That was such fun.

Other readers include my sisters: Julia S. Carlson, attuned to the nuance of words, slowed me down and made me better, as she has, it is fair to say, since the age of five. Janet Carlson, alert to rhythm, demonstrated the importance of a well-placed pivot. Colleague Jen Liese helpfully commented on an early book pitch. Pascale Rihouet read the first two chapters and offered great ideas, insisting, for example, that there must be a print depicting the first assassination by handgun. Gabriel Cervantes pinch-hit at a late stage, after we geekily marveled at the story of a pickpocket who lacks his own pockets in Defoe’s Colonel Jack. He provided astute conceptual perspective.

Research was supported by generous grants and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society; the Costume Society of America; the Humanities Foundation at Boston University; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Several institutions allowed me to rifle, with gloved hands, the pockets of the garments in their care, including the Costume Institute, Historic Deerfield, the Museum at FIT, the RISD Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic Northampton. A special thank you to Dana Signe K. Munroe at the Rhode Island Historical Society for her reflections on Joseph Noyes’s waistcoat. Research assistants Kyra Gabrielle Buenviaje and Sophia Ellis indefatigably chased down leads in the databases. Kyra Gabrielle Buenviaje in addition shared perceptive fashion insights. Marc Calhoun and Emily Coxe handily resolved a number of research puzzles. Bethany Johns and Doug Scott generously schooled me in questions of graphic design. Kristie Peterson helped decode the labyrinth world of image licensing and tenaciously tracked down some mysteries.

Friends, family, and colleagues pitched in with pocket references, and many more good-naturedly put up with just one more pocket story I tried out on them. Charlotte Biltekoff discovered a 1907 feminist polemic; Matthew Bird identified (and located patents for) all the objects a boy might hold in his pocket in 1937; Nancy Ekholm Burkert recounted her observations drawing Emily Dickinson’s pocket; Stuart Burrows alerted me to Molloy’s pocket accounting; Alison Carlson made a valiant pitch for Ötzi’s bag; Anna Carlson forwarded a suffragist pocket; Julia Carlson noticed Sterne’s pocket pantomime; John Dunnigan observed that furniture, too, made space for pocket caches; Tim Fulford sent Robert Southey’s endearing reflections on his son’s coming of age via pocketed trousers; Evelyn Fischer and Hannah Garrison kept it coming with memes and social media artifacts; Henry Hawk suggested a contemporary men’s wear bag that perfectly echoed one depicted in a sixteenth-century portrait; Jessica Sewell introduced me to the resourceful Katy kangaroo; and Katherine Stebbins pointed out Jefferson’s reliance on pocket-size tools. Students in RISD’s Apparel Department have shared their inventive pocketing over the years, teaching me about all the thought that goes into including them.

For giving me a sense that objects, too, have stories to tell, I thank my mother, Nancy Whittaker Carlson. Whether taking me to view the latest costume exhibit or to peruse what was on offer at Bob Knopper’s Dignified Junk and Bottle Shop, she pointed out nuances in material and form, turning those visits into adventures. (I still depend on your discerning eye, Mom!) Big hugs to Kieran and Eliza for listening to all those digressive pocket highlights and for the enthusiasm with which they greeted every discovery. And I thank Charlie for everything—you know, from the bottom of my pockets.


  • “Sweeping gracefully over half a millennium of Western culture... Carlson’s study showcases the best features of cultural history… As sumptuously illustrated as it is learned… this highly inventive and original book demands a pocket sequel.”—Wall Street Journal
  • In her nifty “Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close,” Hannah Carlson unbuttons the politics behind who gets to hide their belongings, and where.—New York Times Book Review
  • "Delightfully wide-ranging."—The New Yorker
  • "An entertaining, slightly academic look at how attitudes toward pockets have changed over the course of the past several centuries... juicy anecdotes."—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
  • “Who knew the humble pocket could hold so much history? In this enthralling and always surprising account, Hannah Carlson turns the pocket inside out and out tumble pocket watches, coins, pistols, and a riveting centuries-long social and political history.”
     —Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
  • “If you’re a man, you might wonder why someone would write an entire book about pockets…if you’re a woman, the story of Pockets pretty much illuminates all of human history. Either way, once you pick up Pockets, you’ll never forget its weird and wonderful lessons of power and possession.” 
     —Faith Salie, contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning and regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
  • “From feminine codes of secrecy to the fascinating culture of smart textiles, Carlson’s book is that rare thing: an exhaustive social history that’s also un-put-downable. Pockets reminds us that what we hold close says everything about who we are, what we value, and why it matters.”
     —Jessica Helfand, Design Observer
  • “Rarely is such a feat of scholarship also such a delight. Carlson’s comprehensive history is among the best fashion books I’ve ever read. This deceptively simple premise contains surprising stories of the ways that politics, law, and technology manifest themselves in the clothes we wear. But the best part is that this book is full of so much assorted delightful useful miscellany—just like the pocket itself.”
     —Avery Trufelman, host and creator of “Articles of Interest” podcast
  • “Fascinating. Drawing from literary and artistic sources; media commentary; behavioral studies; and object histories, Carlson offers an enlightening and engaging account of the sexual politics underlying the uneven use of pockets in the design of men’s and women’s dress.”——Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • “Pockets is absolutely fascinating and beautifully written.”
     —Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology
  • “Witty, wise, and totally mind-bending, this deeply researched, beautifully written book not only recovers the hidden history of pockets, but also reveals the ways those familiar but often ignored pouches reflected (and sometimes reshaped) cultural understandings of objects and the persons that carry them.”
     —Bruce J. Schulman, William E. Huntington Professor of History, Boston University, and author of Making the American Century
  • “Carlson’s fascinating book—a historical who, what, where, why and when with the pocket as its central character—is as delightfully gripping as a spy novel.”—Linda O’Keeffe, author Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More
  • “Stuffed with illuminating illustrations and fresh insights, Pockets will make you reconsider an overlooked but indispensable manifestation of our designed lives. Carlson keeps ferreting out discoveries we didn’t even know we were looking for." 
     —Rob Walker, The Art of Noticing
  • "Fascinating insight as to how something as simple as a pocket can influence culture, gender, and society as a whole. Full color images and photos are abundant throughout the text, wonderfully illustrating that which is being discussed. Perfect for readers interested in history and textiles as well as culture, sociology, and gender."—Booklist

On Sale
Sep 12, 2023
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Hannah Carlson

Hannah Carlson

About the Author

Hannah Carlson teaches dress history and material culture at the Rhode Island School of Design. After training as a conservator of costume and textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she received a PhD in material culture from Boston University. She has contributed articles to Commonplace: the journal of early American lifeDress; and MacGuffin: The Life of Things

Learn more about this author


September 2023

  • In Conversation

    Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore hosts Hannah Carlson in conversation with author Lisa Cohen.

    Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore | Middletown, Connecticut

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October 2023

  • In Conversation

    Joseph-Beth Booksellers hosts Hannah Carlson in conversation with journalist Elissa Yancey.

    Joseph-Beth Bookseller | Cincinnati, Ohio

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