On January 27th, 2018, a woman tried on a wedding dress, gasped, and cried out, “There’s pockets!” Her entourage sat in silence, hands over mouths, as if they never thought they’d see such fashion innovation in their lifetimes. The bride-to-be had said she loved the dress before she discovered the pockets, but now she was beaming. She looked to the sky again and yelped, “It’s functional!”
I know this because I watch Say Yes to the Dress all the time, any time it’s on, nearly four years after my own wedding. As a result, I’ve become a chronologist of wedding dress trends — and even more than the sweetheart neckline or blush tulle or Kate Middleton sleeves, pockets are what brides consistently freak out about.
Apparently, when you’ve been deprived of functionality in most clothing, you’ll take it where you can get it.
Though wedding dresses with pockets have long been an option (here’s one reference from 1999), the trend really took off around 2008. Lanie List, founder of the independent wedding dress chain Lovely Bride, recalls pockets in their first collection from nearly nine years ago.
However, the real breakout moment came in 2012 with the birth of the catchphrase “pockets for snacks!” The phrase came from the spin-off reality show Tanisha Gets Married, in which Tanisha from Bad Girls Club…gets married. While wedding dress shopping, she shrieks the now internet-famous line and jokes that she’ll use them for cookies.
Unfortunately, it’s not a happy ending for Tanisha and pockets. Her mother winds up not approving of the dress and says that if Tanisha only waited a year, she could lose enough weight to wear a smaller size. Tanisha leaves without the pocket dress and ultimately wears a different one.
Despite Tanisha’s choice, pockets in wedding dresses are here to stay. Nearly every wedding website provides multiple roundups for this special detail, in a way they don’t, say, provide lists of the “10 Best Lace Dresses” or “10 Best Dresses With Cap Sleeves.” Now, List says Lovely Bride asks all designers to add pockets to their full-skirt dresses. “The nice thing is, it can just be sewn up. There’s no harm in having it.”
“Pockets for snacks” has also become a mantra among a certain type of bride, says List: “She’s definitely a little more casual. She’s not really getting beading or bling on her dress. … She wants to feel comfortable on her wedding day, for sure, so that utilitarian concept is important to her.”
Pockets hold a strange place in women’s fashion. Though people of all genders usually need to carry belongings with them, as women’s fashion has evolved to favor slimmer silhouettes, many designers see pockets as an interference to design. “A man can simply swipe up his keys and iPhone on the way to a rendezvous with co-workers and slip them into his pocket,” wrote Tanya Basu for The Atlantic. “A woman on the way to that same meeting has to either carry those items in her hand, or bring a whole purse with her — a definitive, silent sign that she is a woman.”
Women’s clothing is often made to favor form over functionality, so it would make sense that when presented with the opportunity for pockets, women would jump at the chance. But because substantial pockets (rather than ones you can barely fit a ChapStick into) are so rare in women’s clothing, they wind up symbolizing not just function, but the kind of woman who wants function. “They are the ultimate statement of feminism, and a femininity that requires independence,” says Virginia Theerman, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate student who organized the recent exhibit Pockets to Purses: Fashion + Function.
You could argue the point of fashion is that what you wear communicates something about you — that by getting dressed you gain access to a seemingly universal language without so much as opening your mouth. But because fashion is associated with women and we live in a misogynistic culture, publicly caring about it has become associated with the worst stereotypes of femininity. “There is unfortunately a world that still exists that dismisses fashion as being a little bit frivolous and [assumes that] the people who work in it are not so smart,” Anna Wintour told Time in 2017. Even if we know it’s not true, the stigma holds, and not caring about fashion has come to engender a kind of superior edge in some circles, with some women favoring the cache they gain by rejecting fashion over the cache gained by “dressing well.” Pockets, I’d wager, let you have both.
Wedding dresses are not known for their practicality. List, however, insists that one’s wedding dress “needs to be one of your most functioning gowns. … And from a pocket perspective, it’s a day where you’re not really going to have anything else on you. You could have a little purse or clutch, but you’re working the room, dancing, you’re eating, so many different things, and all eyes are on you.”
Even still, the functionality is relatively small. Pockets may mean you can carry a lipstick, some tissues, maybe a breath mint — but all those things can be kept by an attendant or in a back dressing room. After all, you’re not running to meetings with pens and phones and credit cards. And reapplying lip gloss, even on your wedding day, isn’t quite an emergency.
What if the real function of pockets, then, is to convey to guests that you’re the type of bride to have pockets? According to Bethany Gingrich, another graduate student at FIT, “the excitement of the pocket on your wedding dress can also come from the ability to make that comforting, casual and fashionable gesture.” Putting your hands in your pockets has become an international gesture for cool. Maybe, if you can pull it off on your wedding day, you are the ultimate chill bride.
It’s prudent to choose a wedding dress you’ll be comfortable in, and pockets may prove marginally helpful. But ultimately, you don’t need them, just like you don’t need a white dress, or a wedding dress, or a wedding at all. I’d argue this symbol of practicality is just that: a symbol. You have them because you want them. And unfortunately, the freedom to express want is something women are often still not afforded.
Women are often told that to want is to be high-maintenance, the opposite of the “cool girl,” especially around weddings. A bride suggesting any preference suddenly becomes a “bridezilla” who should just be happy she’s getting married at all. But it’s human to want, isn’t it? Who doesn’t care even a bit about what they look like? Who wouldn’t, while trying on dresses, feel radiant in this dress and dowdy in that one?
I rarely see the pure joy on Say Yes to the Dress that I do when a bride first discovers her dress has pockets. It’s a surprise in a way a glittery hem or sheer sleeve could never be, a secret for the bride alone. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular, especially among brides who consider themselves no-frills. It’s a small, hidden frill with no consequences. A want that could never be punished.
Jaya Saxena is a freelancer writer whose work has appeared in ELLE, GQ, Racked, The Daily Dot, and more. She is based in Queens, NY. Follow her on Twitter.
Feature photo via Vogue Runway of Carolina Herrera Spring ’18.