What about Pockets as a Safe Space?

Abstract: In the impermanent scenario we live in nowadays, finding a safe space might be very urgent but also delicate and problematic. ‘What about Pockets as a Safe Space?’ is an on-going project questioning safety and intimacy in living environments for international students. It is developed using a garment as a metaphor for shelter, where the body can settle like the inhabitant of a room. Every time we move from place to place, we enter a new empty shelter, a new empty room. When we arrive, we open our luggage and boxes, and then we position our items throughout the room to transform the empty shelter into our private space. Spreading the items through the space of the room, we inhabit the empty shelter and personalise our privacy. In this project, we translated the empty room into an empty garment with a lining full of pockets. In this translation from the room to the garment, we imagine pockets as drawers and shelves which can be filled with personal objects. By using pockets as a research tool, we engage the participants to reframe the definition of space and give personal interpretations. Collecting diverse experiences of safety through the garment, we provide an overview of the intricacy of the topic of safe space within current society.

Keywords: fashion, living space, safe space

I cassetti sono le tasche dei mobili
e le tasche sono i cassetti dei vestiti.
Talvolta cerchi qualcosa in un cassetto
e invece è in un’altra tasca.
Alcuni cassetti sono tenuti molto in ordine
la roba nelle tasche va dove vuole.

La casa è un grande abito nel quale
ci vivi dentro tutto intero
esclusa la vita in terrazza
mentre il vestito è una casa
che ti lascia fuori la testa e le mani
certe volte anche i piedi
al mare sei quasi tutto fuori casa.

The drawers are the pockets of the furniture
and the pockets are the drawers of the clothes.
Sometimes you’re looking for something in one drawer
and it’s in another pocket.
Some drawers are kept very tidy
the stuff in the pockets goes where you want it.

The house is a big garment where
you live in it all in one piece
excluding the life on the terrace
while the dress is a house
that leaves your head and your hands out
sometimes even your feet
at the seaside you’re almost all out of the house.

—Bruno Munari1

How can we define the house as a safe space if we don’t have a permanent residency? Change, impermanence and displacement define some of the current zeitgeist’s values. Due to personal necessities, migration, or economic vulnerability, housing became even more precarious. From our personal experience, our personal nomadic2 attitudes towards living space mark the territory of the house as unstable and undefined. Having a fixed residency is not always a possible solution because of increased population mobility seeking education on a global scale. Within this context, our needs often required rearranging our safe spaces into a new shelter. However, our non-houses3 might not always be safe—sharing a house with many people implies that your personal space is condensed into your room, whereas the common spaces might not be safe enough, particularly during a pandemic.

Arising from these circumstances, ‘What about Pockets as a Safe Space?’ became an on-going research project on the topic of safe space. We interrogate international students’ various attitudes to inhabiting and creating their safe living environment, focussing on the Netherlands. Their different backgrounds determine a divergent approach to the arrangement of safe space, which might be translated to personal living environments. Safe space is a controversial topic.

The concept of ‘safe space’ emerged in the late twentieth century in the United States with the rise of new feminist, queer and anti-racism social movements. Since then, it has been used in many different contexts.4 The term refers to places created for individuals who feel marginalised to come together to communicate their experiences of that marginalisation. It brings with it the question: safe space for whom? Our research intends to investigate the concept without binary interpretation. We aim to reframe the definition of safe space as a continuous discourse, rather than as a fixed answer. Metaphorically, in order to explore the topic, we designed a garment with a lining full of transparent pockets resembling personal rooms.

In this project, we identify this garment as a translation of the empty room into a smaller-scale empty shelter—a smaller space that can be inhabited by different bodies. In this translation from the room to the garment, we imagine pockets as shelves and drawers of the closet which can be filled in with personal objects. As architect Bruno Munari suggested, ‘The house is a big garment […] you live in it all in one piece.’5 The metaphor can help research to define how objects and their emotional values contribute to creating human’s surroundings.

For example, every garment has a mutual relationship with the person wearing it. It installs a series of connections through the fabric with the body; it collects memories over time. When we move from house to house, we bring our clothes and collect our memories and embodied experiences. Architect Bernard Rudofsky considered garments our first house, the first shelter and refuge of the body.6 The pockets are part of this intimate space covering the body. Returning to the archetype of the house, Melissa Kwasny reminds us that ‘humans, who are vulnerable to cold, have three responses to it: fire, shelter, and clothing. Only clothing is easily portable.’7

What human beings need is a first shelter, a roof that is fundamental for refuge and the development of human lives. Nowadays, this shelter might take different shapes. People with different backgrounds define shelter from different perspectives. To elaborate on the idea of the shelter as a primordial house, we investigate how objects shape the feeling of safety in living spaces. As José Ortega y Gasset notes, ‘I am me and that which surrounds me.’8 Objects unconsciously assemble their surroundings, contributing more or less to the interpretation of the relation between living spaces and safe feelings.

To engage participants in our on-going project, we created a garment made of home textiles, such as curtains, bedding stuff, table sheets, etc., to reflect the metaphorical connection with the house. Based on pattern-making research, we emphasise the adaptation and modularity of pockets. The pockets are transparent and stitched into the lining, covered by the fabric, to define the space as intimate. Through the garment, the project aims to explore further how people collect items inside the pockets, in order to research and explore the concept of safe space.

Garment Shelter, no 1.
Garment Shelter, no 2.

We selected the first participant among international students who live in the Netherlands. We designed the pockets and the usage instructions to guide the participants in following the tasks.

The guidance booklet proposes four different steps: (a) action; (b) explanation; (c) elaboration; (d) documentation. Through this process, the participant is engaged in interacting with the objects in the living space by selecting the content to fill the pockets.

Usage Guidance booklet, front cover.
Usage Guidance booklet, Pocket Maps and booklet overview.

The material collected from the participant consists of the documentary components produced when filling the pockets—written material, drawings, pictures. The content documented inside the pockets enables us to show how garments gain usage history from the narrative of the person’s life. In this way, we try to illustrate the metaphor of the garment as an empty space, where the body can settle as the inhabitant of a room—arranging the objects through the space. As the first participant, Prang, a 23-year-old student in graphic design, noted when writing about her room: ‘Maybe it is only one place, one square that is mine in this country, and sometimes introverts need some quiet place without crowd, familiar decoration, clean and familiar smell, to just feel calm, peaceful and safe.’

Participatory project documentation from the first participant Prang Sayasilpi.
Participatory project documentation from the first participant Prang Sayasilpi.

Among the participants, we also decided to use the experience of the garment to investigate safe space from our personal perspective. Reflecting on how we experienced the garment, we—as makers of the project—developed a conversation to contextualise our journey.

Alessandra Varisco and Lu Lin

Alessandra: When it comes to the definition of safe space, there are so many aspects that should be taken into consideration. If I think about my understanding of the topic, for example, I relate it to ideas of the shelter and living spaces. My shelter is also composed of layers of garments covering my body, which interrelates with the outside environment. When I had to fill in the pockets of the garment within the project ‘What about Pockets as a Safe Space?’ I necessarily thought about my clothes. I chose, in particular, three main garments: my grandma’s sweater, an oversized cardigan, and my huge black scarf. The latter I defined as a ‘normalised blanket,’ which I can always carry with me. I think somehow safe space relates to the object we bring with us when we move from place to place, and to the values derived from the embodied experience of the owner. It can be related to necessity, health, studies, or job, but also memories and past experiences.

As Janet Myers suggests, ‘Pockets offered a degree of privacy that was unusual because in the days when people often shared bedrooms and household furniture, a pocket was sometimes the only private, safe place for small personal possession.’9 When I arrived in the Netherlands, I noticed the bond that students developed with their rooms. By sharing the house with many people, the room became their own small square of space, the safe spaces for personal possession. In my imagination, I sometimes feel like students live in small boxes in which they ingrain their experience and, occasionally, their safe space. However, these boxes are often unstable. Students have to keep moving from one box to another. The walls of the room for many people keep changing, but the objects they bring inside remain the same. I know you have recently moved into a new student room. How did you experience the relocation in terms of safe space?

Lu: Every moving experience always triggers my thinking of ‘essential.’ When I was packing numerous objects into limited boxes, I always questioned myself, ‘Why should I have that big amount of stuff? What is essential for me? What limits my flexibility?’ I still remember the first night that I lived in my room in the Netherlands; it simply consisted of a mattress (borrowed from my roommate), a quilt (donated by my friend’s roommate), and a table lamp (picked from the sharing corner in which people throw out their abandoned stuff). For a living space, these are essentials. Interestingly, the essential is reframed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Before I moved out of my previous room, a new tenant moved from Amsterdam to my next-door room. Because of Covid-19, he had to wait for the delivery from Amsterdam; he couldn’t go to home goods stores, which are regarded as non-essential shops. Hence, he had to pick everything from the sharing corner. He shared his awful experience of how to survive with nothing. But I don’t think everyone can be as lucky as him—he picked a folded mattress that I threw away because of moving. In this context, the essentials for some people are not essential for others.

The essentials make me safe. Looking at the objects I chose to fill in the pockets, they are essential—all of the items I reached from a handy place. These are small and valuable for my self-care, like I can pack them into a small backpack for travel. Unlike you, I didn’t pick any garment, even though I brought many clothes from China to the Netherlands. If I only need an essential piece of garment, I can wear it inside the coat with pockets; in addition, the other clothes would be needed for fashionable appearance. As the book Facing Value notes: ‘Food, shelter, and clothing: that is the way we have always described mankind’s basic needs; with increasing sophistication we have added: tools and machines.’10

In my view, fashion is beyond the material functionality of clothing; it is a further need. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the physiological needs—warmth, water, food, rest—present the basic needs. Clothing is part of this. Maslow initially stated that individuals must satisfy lower-level deficit needs before progressing on to meet higher-level growth needs.11 The feeling of safety—in between physiological needs and love and belonging needs—is based on physiological needs and then opens up to further psychological needs. Furthermore, at the top of the pyramid, self-actualisation, exceeding psychological needs, is the highest need of self-fulfilment. In the fashion context, fashion helps with manifesting identity, signifying faiths, and reaching freedom of self-expression. As sociologist Ingrid Brenninkmeyer notes, clothing and dress are the raw material from which fashion is formed. Fashion as a belief is manifested through clothing.12 The essential for me is the garments that keep me warm, which is a fundamental element of constituting safety feelings. So how do you define ‘essential’?

Alessandra: It is a very difficult question. I have been reflecting on it for a long time from many different perspectives, but still no answer. Certainly, I resonated on the essential every time I was moving from one place to another. ‘What do I really need?’ When I moved away from my birthplace, I necessarily selected the items to carry further in my life. The process of selection is always intricate and reflects the complexity of the essential. In particular, I found it difficult to select among the various books I collected through my studies. I am really bonded to my physical library; however, it is not possible to keep moving all the items with me, if I cannot have a fixed place to stay. I always try to pack my stuff to be as flexible as possible, but I never succeed. Also, as I have a background in apparel design, I always ask myself which parts of the clothes are essential and in which shape. When I talk about my clothes, I never refer to them for their fashion value; it is always about the comfort and warmth they can provide; it is something I need also to be safe from the weather. Somehow, it might be considered a form of minimalism. ‘Essential’ is a very radical term. Different conditions need different essentials. So, I would ask myself, is it still possible to define it as ‘essential’?

Going back to the history of pockets in Western European clothing, for example, ‘Pockets allowed a person to continue to carry possessions on their body when their hands were otherwise engaged, such as in the world of work, whether that involved domestic activities or professional employment.’13 Slowly, their importance disappeared, maybe because our essential didn’t fit anymore in the dimension of the pockets. Concerning this topic, I started to think about what are the essentials that I can fit into my pockets when I go out of my room—I rarely carry a bag, at least if I don’t have to. I would bring my keys, the wallet—ID, student card, public transport card, supermarket bonus card, credit card, museum card, so many cards, a face mask, and my phone.

Pockets are so small. But at the same time, safe space, and maybe the ‘essential,’ is made of material and immaterial content. Probably it is better to keep inside the room the material objects and bring outside the immaterial values, which are also easier to share. However, it is not always possible because the system we live in demands us to bring around so many things, either for jobs in the working days or for other activities. So, a playful question comes to me: ‘What do you think about pockets as a safe space?’

Lu: It’s really interesting that you mentioned the devolution of the pockets in our everyday life, especially for women’s wear. When you wore your leather small crossbody bag, I immediately found a familiar feeling of it. When I was living in China, I usually wore small bags because I only needed to put my phone and lipstick inside. One was for daily essentials, one for the complexion. China has experienced an unprecedented digitalisation movement—no wallet and no keys—all of the essential things being packed into the cellphone. You can open the door with your phone, pay for your bus ticket on your phone, and even use AI facial recognition to replace the ID card. So, I cannot imagine my life in China without my phone, only one pocket is enough for ‘essentials.’ However, if we only need one pocket in the Chinese context, why do girls still need to buy the small bag which is as small as a pocket?

Back to the topic of the devolution of pockets in womenswear, it’s very hard to find a dress with a pocket in fashion stores at present. Similarly, female’s trousers have small pockets, even in my baggy trousers. I feel uncomfortable when I put my phone into my trousers, and it always dropped out of my pockets when I squatted down. Yesterday, I watched a video on TikTok—a girl said she finally bought menswear trousers in a suitable size. She showed us how many things she put into the pocket: a shampoo bottle, hand cream, an umbrella, a wallet, etc., around ten items. I felt shocked about how spacious the pockets are in men’s trousers. I perceived that it’s a struggle from functionality and safety feelings through using the pocket as a safe space. Are pockets, which satisfy the personal needs in our daily life for carrying essentials, safe enough? I have no answer yet.

Alessandra: I agree with you. I really think the construction of pockets in women’s apparel is very disorganised. Utilitarianism is not often taken into consideration when it comes to women’s clothes. But more than this, pockets should be constructed for human beings and their needs, which is different in diverse backgrounds. As such, so should rooms and shelters also be. Do you think we can notice the instability of our zeitgeist from how our clothes are designed? Maybe designers should study a new system of pockets but also a new system of shelters and rooms distribution. Anyway, I still don’t know what this system should look like.

Lu: It’s a good proposal! I can see the movement in the new social platform is driving the movement of dressing ways, such as encouraging vintage shopping and practising thrifting fashion. It’s a positive guidance of knowing the historical appeal and experiencing a different composition of garments. Consumers can be a potential force propelling designers to engender a new system of pockets, which can engage our zeitgeist.

Alessandra Varisco

Alessandra Varisco is an M.A. student in Fashion Strategy at ArtEZ University of the Arts. As a student and researcher, she is exploring how different garments gain significance in different systems, with a critical approach to theoretical research and practical activities in the field of fashion and clothes. Among various topics, she focusses on the role of craftsmanship within the fashion system and investigates the untold story of garment manufacturing. Coming from a design background, she is experimenting with new languages to connect her technical skills and interests in sewing and pattern making with an in-depth theoretical background. In her practice, she is aware of the dual-core characteristic of fashion matter, which revolves around both material and immaterial content. Her practice is strongly focussed on an interdisciplinary approach. She is interested in connecting various practitioners from different fields to explore a wider overview from different perspectives.

Lu Lin

Lu Lin is a practitioner and cross-discipline designer in the fashion context. Her approach to design is driven by conceptual experimentations with which she illustrates her strategies and uses them to create new concepts about fashion and society. She focusses on the method of participation and interaction with the public through inventive games that trigger people’s interest and conveys the philosophies behind her projects. Her experience in print design, visual design and freelance work have constructed a variety of formats for conveying her narratives that help the public better understand the messages behind her projects’ ideologies. Additionally, she explores the potential possibilities of roles of garments by using visual materials to engage the audience to create a more engaged and thoughtful society.




  • Bouchez, Hilde, A Wild Thing. Ghent: Art Paper Editions, 2017.
  • Braidotti, Rosi, Nomadic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • Brenninkmeyer, Ingrid, The Sociology of Fashion. Cologne: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1963.
  • Kwasny, Melissa, Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear. Dublin: Trinity University Press, 2019.
  • Lauwaert, Maaike and Francine van Westrenen (Eds.), Facing Value: Radical Perspectives from the Arts. The Hague: Valiz/Stroom, 2017.
  • Maslow, Abraham, Motivation and Personality, 3rd Edition. Delhi, India: Pearson Education, 1997 (1954).
  • Munari, Bruno, Pensare Confonde le Idee. Mantova: Corraini, 1993.
  • Myers, Janet, ‘Picking the New Woman’s Pockets,’ Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 10.1 (Spring 2014).
  • Rudofsky, Bernard, ‘Una Casa a Procida.’ Domus no. 123 (March 1993).
  • The Roestone Collective, Safe Space: Towards a Reconceptualization. Madison, USA: Antipode, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, 2014.
  • Unsworth, Rebecca, ‘Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630.’ Costume 51, no. 2 (2017): pp. 148-170.
↑ 1

Bruno Munari, Pensare confonde le idee (Mantova: Corraini, 1993).

↑ 2

Cf. Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

↑ 3

This word refers to the situation where people cannot live in a proper house; their living space is instead a single room.

↑ 4

The Roestone Collective, Safe Space: Towards a Reconceptualization (Madison, USA: Antipode, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, 2014), p. 1.

↑ 5

Bruno Munari, Pensare confonde le idee (Mantova: Corraini, 1993).

↑ 6

Cf.  Bernard Rudofsky, ‘Una Casa a Procida’ Domus no. 123 (March 1993): pp 6-7.

↑ 7

Melissa Kwasny, Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear (Dublin: Trinity University Press, 2019), p. 9.

↑ 8

Quoted in Hilde Bouchez, A Wild Thing (Ghent: Art Paper Editions, 2017), p. 5.

↑ 9

Janet Myers, ‘Picking the New Woman’s Pockets,’ Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 10.1 (Spring 2014): p. 5.

↑ 10

Maaike Lauwaert and Francine van Westrenen (eds), Facing Value: Radical Perspectives from the Arts (The Hague: Valiz/Stroom, 2017), p. 243.

↑ 11

Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 3rd Edition (Delhi, India: Pearson Education, 1997 [1954]), pp. 69.

↑ 12

Ingrid Brenninkmeyer, The Sociology of Fashion (Cologne: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1963), p. 6.

↑ 13

Rebecca Unsworth, ‘Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,’ in Costume 51, no. 2 (2017): pp. 148–170.