18th Century Fanny Packs, Also a Bit About Nuns’ Pockets

A while back, I was trying to describe the function of tie-on pockets to non-costumers and said, “It’s like an old-timey fanny pack that you wear under your clothes.” I stand by this definition, despite the fact that “fanny” means…well, something entirely different in British English than it does here in America.

Pockets have been around in Europe for well over half a millennium, and for a long time were used by both men and women. However, Western men’s clothing began to have sewn-in pockets around the 17th century, and aside from usage by monks and priests, the tie-on version became a women’s garment. A person would simply tie a pocket, or a pair of pockets, around their waist prior to putting on their final dress or petticoat. These would then be reached through a slit in the skirt. Items inside would be accessible, but close and protected.

Pair of quilted silk pockets, 1740. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Embroidered linen pocket, early to mid 18th century. Fashion Museum of Bath.

One of the great things about pockets in historical costuming is that they are BIG, so you can hide your phone, wallet, and just about anything else inside without ruining your ensemble by hanging a modern purse over your shoulder. Another fun thing about pockets is that you can make them look however you want, because no one will see them. Thus, they’re a great project for using up leftover bits of fabric. The one that I constructed last year was made with the leftovers from my Regency chemise (but could you use old pajamas covered in Pikachus? Sure, have at it.).

Considering that, I went with a historically accurate shape and a modern embroidery pattern from Why Not Stitching. It was a simple, beautiful pattern with lots of textures rendered in poofy cotton strands. It also came with free instructional videos, which I highly recommend for any beginning embroiderers. I added an extra layer of fabric behind the embroidery when I assembled the pocket, so that nothing would catch on the back of the stitching.

My pocket shape is self drafted, but if you want a pattern, you can take a look at the diagrams from The Workwoman’s Guide or at the excellent free pattern on the V&A’s website. Most of them are pear shaped and under a foot long, but you can make yours any shape or size you want, and embellish it however you like! Since I really, really dislike the bunchy effect I get when making abrupt 180-degree turns with bias tape, I simply bound each edge of the slit with selvedge tape, then made a bar tack at the bottom and embroidered over it. The ties are twill tape.

Pocket diagrams. The Workwoman’s Guide, 1838.

Unidentified image of a nun’s pockets. Pinterest.

Speaking of pockets being any shape or size: One aspect of pocket history that doesn’t get much mention is that they are often worn under traditional nun’s robes. My aunt, a former Sister of Charity, once mentioned having worn them in the 1960s. This isn’t surprising, since religious wear (and uniforms in general) often retains aspects of historic dress that lay people have long given up. Nuns’ pockets are EVEN BIGGER than the antique pockets in museum collections, sometimes reaching past the knees. Sadly, since nuns don’t often take pictures of their underwear, the only images I could find are unidentified and unsourced. However, a 2014 article from the Catholic Messenger describes how “The Sisters of Humility used to wear a habit in which there were some very deep pockets, literally from waist to hem. They kept all kinds of things in those pockets — from lunch to tools to galoshes.” Here also is a great collection of tweets from nuns about the things they can fit in their pockets.

For more on the highly gendered history of pockets in clothing, listen to Episode #3 of Avery Trufelman’s fascinating fashion history podcast, Articles of Interest.

– Kate