Today's Reading


After a hasty exit, I patted myself down, checking my pockets to see whether I had stashed anything useful.

The scene was Lafayette Street, post-9/11 New York City, and it was impossible to tell whether the midday evacuation underway was just a drill or something more serious. Following the direction to leave now meant that most of the women attending the weekly staff meeting had left their handbags, purses, or knapsacks where they had put them, tucked under desks and draped over chairs. As I scanned the thinning crowd, it occurred to me that I was not the only one standing indecisively, at a loss about what to do next.

I was wearing what my limited salary and ambivalent aspirations allowed, which was surprisingly versatile given the constraints of twenty-first-century office attire. I believed I had achieved a certain mood, influenced by the looks of those colleagues I admired (the insouciant, this-is-only-my-day-job folks) while hoping to attain the finish of the ambitious, this-is-my-real-job folks. Yet nothing that I wore was particularly well made: what passes for casual chic these days is most often accomplished via shortcuts in construction. Thanks to global fast fashion, women's clothes, in particular, prioritize trendy new effects over thoughtful design and careful execution. The tiny pockets in my trousers had been included as an afterthought, and my knit top was far too pliant to admit any secure containers.

My office mate (of the climbing-the-ladder camp, clad in an exquisite jacket) no longer bowed his head reverentially as he checked his phone; he must have decided to wait this out someplace more convivial. His digital assistant now tucked over his left breast, a streamlined wallet steadying his back-right flank, an ATM card and subway pass surely sandwiched there, he was off. Before turning away from the crowd on the sidewalk, he raised an eyebrow in my direction, asking if I needed to borrow twenty bucks.

Like this guy, some men have been generous in the lending of their pocket bounty. Some make room for keys and lipstick during a night out. But for the most part the well-pocketed seem unconscious of their built-in good fortune. It is difficult to appreciate what you've always had, and pockets tend to go unnoticed by those who have always enjoyed reliably useful ones. So dependable have they proved that a man might leave his clothes behind on the shore for a quick skinny dip but absentmindedly expect his pockets and their contents to have remained at his disposal.

If not likely, such an oversight was made at least once, and recorded for posterity, by someone who thought quite a lot about hasty exits and insufficient provisions. I encountered Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe years after that evacuation drill, having left commercial publishing to teach dress history and material culture (the things that humans make, that we interact with, and that help define us). Defoe's pocket presumption, what his contemporaries called his "notorious blunder," helped crystallize for me why standing on that New York City sidewalk had felt so disconcerting.

Defoe had allowed his famous castaway to wash up on his lonely island with only a knife, a pipe, and some tobacco. Not wanting to doom his character with such a meager inheritance, Defoe engineered a rescue: Crusoe spies his wrecked ship, foundering just offshore. Determined to investigate, he strips his clothes so he can swim to the boat, and once on deck is delighted to find a treasure trove of useful things, including a quantity of sailor's biscuit that has weathered the storm. Stuffing his pockets with the hard rations, Crusoe swims back ashore, planning how he will salvage the remaining supplies of foodstuffs and carpenter's tools. Although mostly unnoticed by readers today, "the famous Passage of his swimming to shore naked, with his Pockets full of Biscuits," was the subject of lively speculation and mirth. According to the London Journal in 1725, Defoe's continuity problem was "taken Notice of in Publik" for years after the book's initial publication.

Defoe's blunder likely conjured images ranging from the pleasurably outlandish to the faintly bawdy to receive this level of attention, but it could very well have raised more rudimentary questions (as it did for me) relating to pocket-hood itself. Just what kind of thing is a pocket? And how does having one cause such unreasonable expectations of loyal service?

In subtle but measurable ways, pockets are different from their more renown cousins, the ingenious bags people the world over, and for millennia, have used for specific purposes. Satchels, medicine bags, alms purses, and fashion bags (to name only a very few) can be carried in myriad ways: slung from the shoulder, worn around the neck, balanced on the head, toted by hand, or strapped to a belt. A comparatively late innovation in fitted or tailored apparel, pockets are certainly not the only solution to transporting necessaries. Yet the desire for a pouch integral to clothes—securely stitched into a permanent fold—is one reason pockets have been so widely adopted.

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