Places Things

The Eternal Embarrassment of Safety Pockets

July 1, 2017

The Victoria & Albert Museum.

An incident which I consider to be one of the funniest in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay involves an item known as a “safety-pocket”.  A forerunner to today’s money belts, this Victorian accessory served the same purpose for female travelers in the late 19th century, safeguarding their passports, money and important papers.

At the very beginning of the Our Hearts, Cornelia explains that her mother has coerced her into wearing one for her journey abroad, describing it as, “a large chamois purse that dangled at the knees in the manner of a sporran and was attached… to an adjustable belt around the waist.  It was worn, supposedly inconspicuously, under skirt and slip…”

But Cornelia’s slinky, skin-tight 1920s wardrobe is no match for this bulky object, which not only protrudes from the outline of her dresses, but also tends to swing out of control at the slightest movement.  Her only consolation comes when she discovers that Emily has been forced by her mother to wear a safety-pocket as well.  There is a darling illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay of the girls showing each other those dreadful appendages that have been fastened onto them by their mothers.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for these items to become a terrible embarrassment to the girls.  It happens when they try to make the best of the fact that the ship they’re traveling on to Europe is stuck on a sandbar and listing to one side.  They attempt to dance on a slippery, tilted floor with some nice young men whom they had met earlier in the day.  Cornelia explains:

“Gradually I became aware that something soft and strange was bumping against my knees… [My partner] began glancing downward uneasily and I realized that something was, in all probability, hitting him too.  Then, with a wave of horror, it dawned upon me what was happening.  That mortifying safety-pocket of mine had got swaying and was rhythmically and indiscriminately thudding first against my limbs then against those of the mystified young man.”

At that same moment, Cornelia sees Emily, her face beet red, walk off the dance floor with her partner.  Clearly the same thing has just happened to her.  That pretty much spells the end of the safety-pockets.

On my first sojourn abroad, my mother sent me off with a 20th century version of the safety-pocket, which was a pouch suspended by a cord worn around my neck, that hung down to my waist.  So instead of flapping beneath my skirt (as if I was wearing skirts as I backpacked through Europe!), my pouch bounced beneath my shirts and tended to give me the appearance of being roughly five months pregnant.  The next time I traveled, I went with the much-derided fanny pack, which strangely enough has suddenly made a (presumably short-lived) comeback in the fashion world.

I decided early on in this project that I wanted to make the safety-pocket one of the subjects for a blog post.  Riveting, I know.  Hey, they can’t all be tabloid-salacious.  But don’t worry, there’s one of those coming.

Safety pockets.  Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to locate a photo of anything that resembled the illustration in Our Hearts.  But in my research, I had come across references to early women’s pockets in some books and articles from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Collection, which sounded similar to Cornelia’s description of their safety-pockets.  And yes, there are whole books written about the evolution of pockets.  Makes my post seem electrifying in comparison, doesn’t it?

Armed with these bits of information, I headed over to the sublime V&A Museum.  It was buzzing with large crowds who were there to take in the Pink Floyd exhibition and/or view a collection of over one hundred garments from designer Balenciaga – just two of many focus-pulling attractions the V&A had on offer.  My plan was to knock out the safety-pocket question first, then spend some time looking at the pretty fashions before having tea in the Gamble Room.  It was going to be the most lovely, girly, prissy day.

I went to the general information desk to ask one of the nice ladies behind the counter where I should inquire about an item in the textile and fashion archives.  She asked for specifics, and I explained that I was doing research on a safety-pocket, and stated ever-so-helpfully, “It’s sort of a 19th century version of a fanny pack.”  The woman blinked a bit at what I said and then hastily pointed me in the direction of the textiles hall, saying, “they might be able to help you better”, while another woman passing nearby with a group of school kids in tow looked at me somewhat disapprovingly.

There wasn’t any sort of research desk in the textiles and fashion area, so I stepped up to the reception counter where a couple of staff members were collecting tickets from a steady stream of visitors to the Balenciaga collection.  The young woman noticed me and moved over to help.  Once again, I explained what I was looking for, again making the fanny pack reference.  She hesitated, then got the young man’s attention and she took tickets while he helped me.  For the third time I went through my spiel, at which the young man drew in his breath before breaking into a wry smile.  In a flash, it hit me why everyone seemed so perplexed and a bit put off about helping me, and I was mortified.

Had it really been so long since I lived here that I could have forgotten about the word fanny?  How that gentle American word for backside, as innocuous as “tushy” or “derriere”, to the English, is a vulgar slang term for lady parts.  Though not as bad as the c-word, it’s still quite crass, pretty much on par with the kitty-cat word.

I had just been a potty-mouth in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I had basically been telling everyone I encountered that I was looking for a “pussy pack”.  On realizing this, I apologized profusely to the two people at the counter and then explained again, using the proper English term “bum bag”.  At this, they suggested I speak with one of the curators, who didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, and then gave me the names of a couple of books they had on display which might contain what I was looking for.

I checked out the two books, but couldn’t find any photos which resembled the illustration in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”.  Still stinging a bit from embarrassment, I decided not to seek out a curator, and gave up the search.  I even skipped on tea in the Gamble Room.  I wasn’t feeling very prissy anymore.

Cornelia and Emily had been humiliated by safety-pockets, so in keeping in sync with their journey, I suppose it’s only fitting that I should be humiliated by them as well.  There seems to be no end to the trouble those silly things can cause.

Top Row:  Cornelia and Emily expose their shameful secret in an illustration by Alajalov; my vintage, sweat-stained travel pouches.

Bottom Row:  The closest thing I ever found to a photo of a safety-pocket; the Gamble Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I didn’t have tea.

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