People of an aesthetic turn may possibly think that the subject of trouser pockets is not a large one; but in this world simple things often carry with them stronger associates than others which are more complex or more dignified, and familiar objects which are constantly in use, be they ever so insignificant, are more bound up with our daily life than some philosophers might care to acknowledge.
— Use of Trouser Pockets, New York Times, 1879

Almost 150 years later in 2018 these considerations about the pocket haven’t change all that much since the New York Times article in 1879. The pocket is a design object in our physical world but at the same time also a symbol of our complex social world. Design objects not only reveal the social, political, and economic realities surrounding their manufacture date, but actually shape how we perceive and value ourselves and others. If we dig into the case of the pocket, it is an object that actually reveals our cultural valuation of gender. How much exactly we can fit into this pocket depends on what we have access to socially. Why shouldn’t the pocket have an equal function for all people?  Yet, for those unaware, any garment that falls under womenswear is at great risk of having non-functional pockets. For no readily apparent reason, the pocket is simply not a reliable or useful option in women’s clothing. As dress historian Christopher Matthews writes in the Trouble with Victorian Pockets “the woman denied the resources of the pocket can be everything her culture needs her to be.”

Design, designers and the not-so-innocent pocket have all played significant roles in social constructions of race, class, age and gender.   We are well versed as designers about physical barriers to access, but less so when it comes to design’s complicity in social barriers to access. Design objects have the power to perpetuate stereotypes as well as to erode them. In particular, gender, as it relates to design objects, circumscribes the world of those who identify as female. Ironically, what design has created as “feminine” and “for women” often exploits her figurative  “pocket” through gendered pricing, perpetuates concepts of incapability, and most importantly, with lethal consequences, doesn’t actually consider her at all.


Since the 1500s the sewn-in pocket, along with access to economic power, permittance into public space, and concepts of autonomy, has historically been the exclusive privilege of white men. The sewn-in pocket in menswear is so tied to commerce for example, that it became “the center of economic being, muscle of marketplace selfhood, nearly invisible on the male body because of that body.” Women would use an appendage, a tie-on pocket, for some 350 years until sewn-in pockets were introduced to womenswear. The tie-on pocket (and still purses) were easily snatched and stolen, but the pockets that were gradually integrated into womenswear lacked functionality. Women lost the private personal space of the tie-on and the depth and security of the male sewn-in pockets. On the surface there would be nothing to suggest that womenswear pockets are anything but functional, however they are vestigial.  


At first glance the pocket may seem trivial, but for half the population the design of the pocket is a daily affront. It is a daily reminder of the subtle side of gender bias we experienced through design objects. Ubiquitous but invisible, the pocket embodies the role and consideration of women in industrial design. I use the pocket as a vehicle to travel through gender acted out in our social, physical and emotional worlds. The pocket continues to be an index of access to mobility, financial agency and private space — things historically and currently less accessible to women. Whether bedazzled or hidden, what lies behind the entrance of any pocket is exclusive private space. Pockets, a sort of portable private sphere, were ironically denied to the purveyors of that sphere, women. Sewn-in pockets and their ideology strayed far too close to the body, and in the case of the female body, this was incendiary. As dress historian Barbara Burman writes: “Through its special place close to the body, enclosing interior space and offering the hand of the wearer, and the eye of the onlooker, a conduit towards the body, the pocket signals the extent to which the clothing of men and women is open or closed to the outside world. It indicates gender by the degree to which the body beneath can explicitly draw attention to itself, and thus how much that body can inhabit, confront or command the social world.”


Why is it the pocket is an essential, functional part of menswear and a simulated one for womenswear? And how exactly does an object that more often holds lint and washed receipts reveal a ancient, deeply ingrained gender hierarchy? The reassurance of plunging one’s hands into ample pockets is dual fold, a refuge for nervous hands, and a space that connects to a world oriented for you.  The subtle reinforcement of belonging (or not) in this world is constantly experienced through design objects.   Sarah Ahmed’s concept of orientation (Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, and Others) helps us understand that these unchallenged objects expose the inner workings of our social space and that social space is oriented to men. What does or does not come into view is a conversation between the person and the space they are inhabiting. For example, when you think of men’s pants, do they have pockets? If it is unimaginable for men’s pants to not have pockets, or worse have fake pockets, we can see how strongly orientation dictates what we accept as given. Two people’s experience of the same space can be totally divergent depending if it is oriented towards or away from them. Consider that women’s pants usually have larger pockets on the rear (but still small enough for countless phone plunges into the toilet)!

Without acknowledgment that our spaces are oriented by design and then objects come into view, designers are hopelessly doomed to produce more of the same. The unequivocal beginning of solving any problem is knowing one exists and that we have lost sight of the true origin of problems. When “we take what is given is simply a matter of what happens to be in front of us” we lose the ability to be critical of the status quo reinforced by design objects.  Just as with the right material or color choice, designers must be just as able to identify what an object reveals about our orientation, who is included and excluded, and the biases that live in that space. What this means is being honest with our own prejudices.

Our first clue to indicate how industrial design and its designers are oriented begins with the (in)visibility of female design accomplishments and accreditation in design texts. Sheila Rowbotham's points out this unacknowledged starting point in Hidden From History explaining that “[unbiased history simply makes no declaration of its bias, which is deeply rooted in existing society reflecting the views of the people influence.” The glaring absence of women and female design contributions in classic design texts impacts our cultural understanding of the pioneers of industrial design. This foundation contributes to our current space where women cannot come into view. The fact that the makeup of classic industrial design firms, between 80-85%, continues to be male can hardly be a surprise with this skewed pedigree.

Furthermore, when a woman is mentioned in historical design writing, the mention of a husband, boyfriend, or lover is suspiciously only a few sentences away.  As fashion and design history scholar Cheryl Buckley points out, “historians note Sonia Delaunay for her “‘instinctive’ feeling for color” while her husband Robert is attributed as having formulated a color theory.” This type of writing reinforces stereotypes of the intellectual male and the supplemental female. In their given time periods, it may not have been permissible for women to conduct business solely on their own, but design writing often fails to mention this compelling motivation for women to pair off.  The recycling of the design power couple narrative is detrimental to recognizing female contributions and incorporating actual female perspectives in the design process today. This “shared” spotlight casts a lingering shadow on females in many areas of academia from biology to economics, and industrial design is no exception. Female accomplishments are consistently more attributed to external factors (luck, teams, partners) whereas male accomplishments are linked with internal factors (cleverness, ingenuity). When it comes to accolades, men have deep pockets of resources to pull from and women are left jamming their fingers against seams sewn shut. Male talent is deeply innate, whereas for women it is merely superficial. The way design credits women can even be summarized by a Christian Dior quote about pockets: "Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration" takes on an entirely different meaning.

Any performance  of gender bias requires its villain, patriarchy, and any performance of industrial design requires its script, capitalism. It’s the combination of these structures that leaves particularly scarce space for women to be valued in industrial design. Fashion and design historian, Cheryl Buckley explains that in a patriarchal social structure “'s activities are valued more highly than women's. For example, industrial design has been given higher status than knitted textiles” largely due to value being closely tied to exchange-value. Men’s work is associated with objects of exchange-value (monetary), automobiles and furniture for example, whereas the areas where women were allowed to work, textiles and ceramics, are more likely to be of use-value. The value of these objects is in the life of their use, and not in monetary equivalent. As we examine historic design contributions, we must disassociate monetary value with success. As Georg Simmel points out in The Philosophy of Money value is “never an inherent property of objects, but is a judgment made about them by subjects.” Again we see the dominant group, whose work is associated with exchange, is setting our point of view: monetary equivalents are the greatest measure of value.  

This same subjective valuation can be seen through gendered pricing of identical products. Items marketed towards women are an average 7% more expensive while women continue to earn less money compared to their male counterparts. In A Study of Gender Pricing in New York City from 2015, the Department of Consumer Affairs confirmed gendered pricing with women  “paying thousands of dollars more over the course of their lives to purchase similar products as men.” In a case study of Levi’s jeans, the  best selling jeans brand, controlling for all objective factors like wash, style width and length, identical men’s and women’s sections are markedly different in 2 ways: price and pockets. The same jean, differentiated by its gendered location in the store, was separated by $18.50 and 6.5 inches of pocket space. What at first glance may appear to be two equal jeans, in actuality are women’s jeans with pockets mimicking the function and access of men’s jeans. For good measure, they even managed to squeeze in gender stereotypical language in product names: Skinny Lovefool vs Skinny Biology.

Gendered consumption spoils did not begin after WWII however. During the Enlightenment of the early 18th century, retailers capitalized on a new world full of public discourse and exchange and commerce.  With women be sequestered in the private sphere, they were unable to participate in public discourse and as Michael Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics “... had few strategies open to them, but one was to carry their unrecuperated positivity into consumption...commodities were being used, especially by women, as a kind of access to publicness that would nevertheless link up with the specificity of difference.” This barred access to public space was mirrored in the clothing of the time with men having ample sewn in pockets that teleported them between private and public spheres, whereas women were trapped in one dimension. Much like the tie-on pocket being external to the body, woman were kept separate from the public sphere. Sewn-in pockets in womenswear was “a conceptual problem that brought closer to explicitness the logic by which a body could or could not incorporate the tools of public mobility.” Men’s pockets on this inside of clothing represented a transgression into a private space. A space that could safely hold such lofty private things as money, land titles, treaties of independence, firearms etc. Women’s dress however had the pseudo-pocket, or the tie-on pocket. A design object that reflected our historic male orientation and women’s corresponding pseudo-access to the world.

Today this “unrecuperated” positivity of female purchasing power controls billions of dollars industry. Currently in the US, women make up  51 % population, and account for fully 80% of consumer spending. Women influence buying for 94% of home furnishings, 92% of vacations, and 91% of homes, 51% of consumer electronics spending and 60% of automobile sales. Worldwide, by 2028, women will control nearly three quarters of consumer spending. The simple tie-on pocket has grown to the multi-billion dollar handbag industry. An object that reflected women’s exclusion from public space has now become inextricably linked to concept of female. An object that could be read as liberating a woman-on-the-go, still embodies this exclusion. Carrying your most valuable possessions in a sack away from your body versus having them snuggly against your body in a pocket do not inspire the same level of confidence. Aside from purses being easily snatched away, even the gesture of rummaging through a purse leaves you in a vulnerable state with head down and usually both hands occupied. The coevolution of handbag marketing to women with pocket-less womenswear, has truly left women holding the proverbial bag.  

The form and function of design objects and how they are marketed are part of stereotype creation, and as behavioral economist Iris Bohnet points out “stereotypes describing how we believe the world to be often turn into prescriptions for what the would should be.  Power tools have largely been designed into the stereotype of the handy male. In her article The World is Built for Men, Kat Ely explains cultural ideas of building/fixing things as “men’s work” drives the design of such objects to better fit male grip and strength, thus excluding anyone who does not fit these dimensions. Combined with our cultural orientation, when a woman fails to use a power tool, it becomes her personal failure, rather the reality of design’s failure to her.  Design soothsayer Don Norman speaks at length of how often we blame ourselves when we fail to use an object, when in actuality it is poor design that is to blame: “The vicious cycle starts: if you fail at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do the task, you believe you can’t, so you don’t even try. The result is that you can’t, just as you thought.” For half the population where most design objects fail to consider them accurately, his observations take on powerful additional meaning.  The profit in purses is a testament to the vested interest in perpetuating gendered stereotypes through marketing and design choices. Failing to design pockets correctly for half the population is a lucrative strategy forcing a consumer to buy two items (pants and purse) versus just one (pants with pockets). Clearly there is an economic gain in exploiting gender stereotypes, but can the more insidious reality be a cultural gain for the dominant group?

Even items hailed as being deeply considerate of women fail to genuinely consider her. The telephone, typewriter, washing machine and electric iron are objects that outlined the scope of a woman’s domain and her role in society and play directly into cultural ideas about where and how a women should work. The washing machine and refrigerator were sold as convenience for the woman, when in reality extended her service to 24 hours a day, and was actually a convenience for the family. As Jane Graves points out objects of domesticity have become “irrecoverably yoked” to the woman at home, the mother, the caregiver, the servant. Even in pregnancy, the woman is an extension of a kitchen appliance, with a “a bun in the oven.”

It is exactly this showboating of considering women in design that has led to very real ramifications. One of the most prized realms of industrial design, automotive design has been negligent to women. A study found that women incur injuries at higher rate than men, 47% higher for serious injuries  and 71% for minor-moderate, largely due to the fact that car safety design is still based on average male proportions. The 2011 requirement of female crash test dummies for safety ratings up ended existing crash test ratings. A similar story is seen with CPR training.  In November 2017, a report revealed women are less likely to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in public, which was linked to the use of male CPR mannequins. Pacemakers too reflect objects suffering from gender bias. In 2014 a report showed that pacemakers were more effective in women but we less recommended because not enough women comprised the data set in the trials.

If we were to examine these design examples to determine the size of the user base, it would be reasonable to assume these designs were intended for some extreme user group and not half the population. How is that substandard design considerations for half the population are so glaring yet so common? Female crash test dummies and female CPR mannequins have long existed. The design problem does not begin with the artifact, rather the culture that produced it. Subverting deep rooted gender bias cannot be corrected by individual objects alone and the design solution lies with changing the way we think about each other. Any attempt to correct individual biased objects is almost in vain if we aren’t aware or considering larger forces at work. Implicit bias is one such force that is deeply important to understand as we design objects. Implicit bias is our unconscious attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes that shape our understanding, actions, and decision making.  It is involuntary, cannot be accessed through introspection but it is malleable and can be influenced. Implicit biases are deeply ingrained and culturally passed down.

This must be an important factor to consider when designing for inclusivity. Behavioral economist Iris Bohnet provides examples of design interventions that reduce gender bias. A promising example for industrial design is the example of story of US orchestra auditions. Prior to the introduction of blind auditions to US orchestras in  1970, only 5% of the top 5 US orchestra were female. After the introduction of a screen between the applicant and the judges,, talent became the driving force and today top orchestras are almost evenly split. It removed the opportunity for gender bias to influence decisions. The redesign of the 2016 SAT stop rewarding risk seeking behavior, which saw a dramatic leveling of scores. (Risk seeking behavior being culturally rewarded in men and boys) Successful programs of removing any gender identifying information from resumes as well as programs designed to edit job descriptions to removed gendered language has also allowed talent to be the driving force behind hiring, and not implicit biases.  

These examples demonstrate the power of design interventions to counteract gender bias. A parallel to removing gender identifiable information from auditions and resumes, could be gender neutral design. Gender neutral products for example have been increasingly popular but can they really be neutral when when 85% of the perspective is male?  Unless diversity at the design table and during the design process is changed, gender neutral is yet another exploited marketing label. Closer examination of gender neutral objects often reveal that the masculine is still the prefered perspective. Interestingly, in historian Christine Arnold’s analysis of Shetland knitwear, “gender-neutral” Fair Island sweaters “were a product of a society in which gender was very rigidly marked, therefore not in need of sartorial reinforcement.” Although these itchy items could have been neutral, they were not reflective of a gender neutral society, rather a highly binary one. When our cultural associations of the Louboutin stiletto becomes one of masculinity, then maybe we are moving to a gender neutral design world. The previous example of orchestra auditions had to be redesigned after the sound of high heels continued to allow gender bias to operate. Once a carpet was introduced and this auditory signifier of femininity was removed, only then talent began to level out.

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s discussion of academic revolution in the The Undercommons applies to industrial design. Clearly “pinking” objects is not the solution, and the debt owed to women who have been historically denied cannot be repaid by the design culture that marginalized them in the first place. The only hope for progress is to rebuild the infrastructure all together. Just as female test dummies and CPR mannequins have existed, the challenge is to induce positive behavior change so that it would be unimaginable to leave females out of any stage of design. Again, Harney and Moten, say it best: “...[the] goal is not to end the troubles but to end the world that created those particular troubles...”

In order for our society to errode gender bias, we can begin by subverting one of its primary delivery mechanisms, namely the familiar, unchallenged objects that surround us. The Parity Pockets Project seeks to contribute to a new way of examining the role of industrial design in social change. Parity Pockets are no-sew pocket extenders that provide an immediate solution to biased design and the corresponding workshop and website seek to shift implicit gender bias through sustained, long-term education.  It should be noted that pocket extenders exist but they are intended to patch holes in men’s pockets, and not to remedy deficient pocket design in womenswear or to extend the freedom of pockets to women. 139 years later, designers, people of an aesthetic turn, still must acknowledge that the ever so insignificant objects of our daily life can be the largest catalysts for social change.