Understanding Men’s Pockets: From Pocket Bags to Military Influences

To get a “sexism in fashion” argument started, just mention pockets. Women’s styles have long have had too few, and even for those with them, the depth is seriously inadequate – not enough room for a wallet or a smartphone. And, while brands should address this disparity, menswear, based on SS19 collections, has swung the other way: Superfluous pockets all over everything.

Take the safari jacket as one example. These button-flap accents, most with an actual pocket behind, dot the chest and sides, and might even be present on the interior, too. Pants, too, aren’t exempt, with military-referencing additions covering more than the hip area. But, while they’re mostly functional, extra pockets represent one paradox: Even when a garment has practical features, should you actually use them? The question, then, isn’t so much a definite “yes” or “no,” but more like a, “How ridiculous do I want to look?”

Some Background About Pockets

Throughout the centuries, the definition of “pocket” has gone through a few changes. Derived from the French term “poque,” it initially referenced a bag or small pouch you’d carry around or wear under a garment. Up through the 16th century, a “pocket” was tied to the waist in some form, but within a century, they sat below skirts and pants, accessible only by a side slit. Thus, around this time, the shape flattened out some, preventing it from being conspicuous and bulky under an outer garment.

What we conceptualize as pockets today didn’t make a regular appearance until the 18th century. This point in history saw these pouches added to pants, coats, and vests. From this point on, variety only expanded: By the 19th century, garments would have inside and outside pockets, ticket pockets, watch pockets, and hip pockets.

By 1901, Levi’s ended up adding a fifth pocket to its 501 silhouette. Contrary to assumptions, Levi’s actually added a second back pocket – the small coin or pocket watch slot was already present – to offer significantly more storage. Thus, the five-pocket design – a staple of both work and fashion denim – emerged.

Pocket Types

Classic menswear designs – and not the extra additions you’re seeing today – frequently feature a combination of the following pocket types, all fairly practical:

Patch pockets are the types you see stitched to the surface of a garment. Also known as “slip” pockets, their seam sits on the shirt’s or pants’ outside, and you can simply slide a wallet, phone, or another small item inside. As a drawback, it makes the contents somewhat visible, and fashion wise, it’s fairly informal. Essentially, no dress blazer should ever have patch pockets on the exterior.

Flap Pockets, by design, sit within the garment, with the bag located below the surface. A flap, usually buttoned or snapped in place, sits on top. Traditionally, they’re seen as more formal than patch pockets – you’ll often find them on business suits and sports coats – but more and more streetwear styles incorporate them. The next time you look at a military-inspired shirt or jacket, you’ll likely notice a set covering the upper chest.

From a practical standpoint, too, hiking, work, and similar travel clothing utilizes flap pocket, often as a place to stash a compass, passport, or other small gear you’ll have to easily and quickly access during your journey. You’ll likely spot them on shackets, lightweight travel shirts, and even flannels.

Jetted pockets, occasionally called “welted pockets,” are essentially a hybrid of the above two types: The pocket can’t be seen from the garment’s surface, but the flap itself is tucked into the slash for a cleaner appearance. The simplicity and barely there practicality make it a standard on the most formal suits and eveningwear, although you’ll still spot them on sports jackets and chino pants.

Beyond these basic types, all present in various combinations on pants, blazers, and button-up shirts, a “third” pocket may also be present. A jacket, for instance, may have a “ticket pocket” above the primary right pocket. Flapped and smaller, or possibly jetted, it initially emerged as a feature for train travel. Designers, too, starting adding breast pockets for a practical purpose: holding and quickly grabbing a handkerchief. These days, most men add a pocket square to this boat-shaped opening.

As a more modern addition, hidden zippered pockets – with the pocket bag obscured entirely, and only a small zippered slit hinting at its presence – are a staple of travel and hiking garments. Often on the chest, along an inseam, or moved to the interior, they ensure things you want to stay hidden – for instance, a passport, wallet, and other travel documents – stay that way throughout your entire trip.

When Men’s Pockets Go Overboard

While the SS19 variation is the very definition is “extra,” distaste for this addition goes back to a laidback ‘90s staple – the cargo short. As with your chinos and flat front shorts, the side and back pockets seem like enough, but the side flap pockets appear to push the limits: Superfluous and an eyesore when not used. When a guy actually stuffs some odds and ends inside, they suddenly appear bulky, clearly look like you’re hiding something (and doing a very poor job of it), and might even weigh the shorts down. As such, the already-long length gets pushed down below your knees.

But, cargo pockets, as with many other menswear staples, have military origins. Essentially a patch pocket with a flap on top, the cargo pocket initially appeared on jackets, but by the 20th century, soldiers sported them on both shirts and pants, with the added space and quick accessibility being two serious advantages.

In modern times, though, the cargo pocket itself is an allusion to a different time – and should be treated as more of a reference or an embellishment, rather than a practical feature. Especially as men’s bags, from messenger styles to even fanny packs, are less of a faux pas, it’s often easier (and more streamlined) to carry your basics around in a closed bag, instead of bulky, expandable pockets right by your knees or on your chest.