In Franny and Zooey (Salinger, 1961), Bessie Glass walks around her New York apartment wrapped in a blue kimono. A worn out garment that shimmers with the splendour of the huge pockets where she fits the paraphernalia of an incorrigible smoker and a handyman. A tremendously modern, anomalous piece that conveys the sophistication of practical things. It is one of my favourite images in literature.
Pockets distribute the weight of objects evenly, do not limit movement and above all, they offer a nook for privacy. They are a place to keep things and secrets, or to dunk our hands in and hide our bodies from the cold, from shyness, from impatience. For pockets to work, they must be able to hold a whole hand, hold our phone, keys, a reasonably-sized wallet and, ideally, a notepad or a small book. The fabric they are made of must be strong and firm, and they should be built into the design in such a way that they don’t flare open. Jackets and coats should always have at least one inside pocket: the pocket of liberty and financial independence as Susan Irvine says. The best will offer two or three, a few more even. A list of obvious features, all of them conspicuous for their infrequency.
On August 28th, 1899, a columnist for The New York Times wrote “no pocketless people has ever been great since pockets were invented, and the female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless”. Over a century later and in the meantime the vote, parental custody, the right to work, to have money of our own, and to wear pants, and yet Bessie’s pockets can still be construed as rare, an expression of her very own singularity. The competition among genres is fixed, that is evident, when pockets are an exception for which we still sigh and beg, and walking the public space seems a transgression to atone by bearing a bag on our shoulders. As if we were ethereal creatures with nothing to hide, we are left to place the elements of our private worlds inside an accessory designed for exhibition.
A pocket is always a secret hideout, a space which can hold nothing but our personal effects, a limit to the possibility of carrying (and pleasing) everyone’s demands. One cannot bare with it all: the snacks, the first aid kit, and the sewing box. The ability to go about with nothing other than what fits into a couple of pockets, to say no, the possibility to hide one’s navigation tools and have them all set and at hand at all times, is an expression of self-sufficiency that stands out against the skit of the woman who loses her keys in the commotion of her little purse. No glamour there. Pockets uphold an image of casual elegance, of invulnerability and mystery, of total freedom.
One would be a hypocrit to argue against the beauty of handbags, their symbolic value, the aid they offer if we wish to carry extra things — Anna Karenina does not fit any pocket and could be exactly what we want to read that day. What’s off is the absence of pockets and the ubiquity of what should be a back up, an option, a whim. If at least we carried a gun in our clutch, like the star in a film noire, or a white paper sketch book to draw, for that matter; but we carry lipstick and wet wipes. A disgrace. A waste of resources. These are also the shapes of inequality.