"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 September 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

It's in the Bag

[Frisbees for Frisbee Dogs]

The sales associate at the Prada

store is prickly and somewhat

distracted as she runs down the

specs of the $270

bike-messenger bag.

"It's 10 by 12, two pieces of

nylon sewn together, with a

strap," she says, not quite

rolling her eyes. She says that

it's the store's most popular

bag; they've sold "a couple

thousand" of them. When I ask

who is buying them, she emits an

icy, "Everybody," that probably

works better when the heat index

isn't higher than my bank

account. No doubt, years of

working on commission have given

her a sixth sense about who's

actually going to make a

purchase — call it "paydar."

Yet I press on: Who, exactly, is

"everybody"? Slipping into

relatively cordial Milton

Bradley tones, she informs me

that "everybody" means "people

from 14 to 40," and then says,

"I don't really feel like

answering any more of these

questions; I've got work to do."


Of course she does. And the

people laying down three bills

less change for a few ounces of

nylon? They've got work to do.

You can tell by the bag. From

ersatz bike-messenger bags to

obscenely commodious cargo

pants, the most popular trope in

the world of fashion today is

the world of work, and not just

any work, but hard work:

ferrying cases of documents

across town, and, umm, whatever

it is that cargo pants are

supposed to help you do —

probably something having to do

with tools.


Historically, the relationship

between status and stuff

underwent a curious inversion

in terms of the actual

person: The ultimate statement

of status was getting someone to

carry your stuff around for you.

But the bike-messenger bag —

an accessory now metastasized

into strappy triangular

bodypacks and half-vest mobile

pockets — has become the SUV

of the skin, an advertisement of

one's own usefulness and

importance, even as it speaks

the language of conspicuous

consumerism though the teeth of

redundant zippers.


At Kate Spade, a shop whose main

function used to be

accessorizing the

grosgrain-ribbon fastidiousness

of associate book editors, the

$287 Jake Spade messenger bag is

completely sold out. It's

available in canvas, nylon, and

— coming this winter —

worsted wool. It's being bought,

says a company representative,

by "working women and," she

pauses diplomatically, "some

men. Some very hip men."

Do any bike messengers buy it?

She laughs. "No."


[Black Black]

The compulsion to have a bag

that reeks of genuine Puckian

utility (if it doesn't in fact

reek of Puck) surely has its

roots in the fact that, for most

people, work of the

carrying-things-around variety

is increasingly a thing of the

past. We don't even shuffle

papers anymore. We trade bits

and move numbers, and the irony

of the messenger bag is that the

heaviest thing carried in it is

usually a laptop. The

specialized cell phone packets

and Pilot pouches that some of

these things sport are emblems

not of the bags' functionality

but of our desperation to

convince ourselves that we are

still functional. In the end,

it's impossible not to wonder if

this mania for messenger bags

doesn't simply stem from the

suspicion that the hardest

working person in any office is

the delivery guy.


Retailer Urban Outfitters, whose

very name embodies exactly these

kinds of oddly oxymoronic

assumptions, sells bike-

messenger bags as well as the

"Yak Pak," a one-shoulder-strap

backpack that comes equipped

with a prominent cell phone

attachment. For about 20

bucks, Urban Outfitters also

sells an apronlike item (a

strip of fabric and a zipper)

that basically amounts to an

external pocket, a luxury that

used to come with your pants.

But buyer Sue Otto says that

these bags' appeal lies in the

"nomadic quality" of

customers' lives, the idea that

"you've got to have all your

gear with you."


[Plastic pants and fishnet shirts... so stylish]

Ah, yes, gear. Not too long ago,

doctors began warning parents

that the fad of extra-big

backpacks could damage a child's

growing spine by adding an

unwieldy 30 or 40 pounds to the

already heavy burdens weighing

upon the shoulders of

adolescents (acne, loss of

virginity, homework, the

five-day waiting period for

handgun purchases). But few

bothered to note what it was

that teens carried, and maybe it

doesn't matter, because the

amount of things we have to

carry expands to fill the

containers we provide. And in

the case of bike-messenger bags

or Custard Shop's suggestively

futuristic "body bags," what one

is carrying doesn't matter so

much as the fact one is

carrying it.


That designers have raided the

closets of the working class is

nothing new: The history of

bourgeois-style slumming goes at

least as far back as Levi's.

What's interesting about the

current phase is that fashion is

now outpacing the evolution of

the items it apes. In terms of

class relations, this trick of

sprucing up the tools of the

working class into the

accessories of the chattering

one is something like turning a

sow's ear into a silk purse. But

lately manufacturers like

Custard Shop have been turning

out nylon and rubberized canvas

containers that have no analog

in the real work world: Their

shapes are vaguely ergonomic but

they have no specific use. The

details of the bags —

webbing, cords, elasticized

pockets, and pen holders —

gesture at a degree of

usefulness that's beyond the

organizational needs of anyone

who's not scaling a mountain or

auditioning for a revival of

MacGyver. That is to say, such

fetishization of

compartmentalization doesn't

suggest utility, it suggests a

psychic break — once, people

who got excited by these kinds

of restraining devices were

exactly the types who were

placed in them.


[I had great technique until I broke my arm]

There's a quasi-futuristic

ridiculousness to this aspect of

the trend, if also an almost

endearing optimism. As any

veteran of back-to-school

shopping can attest, the

purchase of a new bag produces

an addictive hopefulness, even

if, in the end, this is simply

proven to be a material

manifestation of putting all

your eggs in one basket. Having

the right bag, after all,

implies having the right

equipment in it. It means never

being at a loss, never fumbling

for the appropriate response,

and always having the

information at hand.

It's this last desire, I

suspect, that's at the heart of

the appeal of the messenger bag.


As for the other bags that have

attached themselves,

barnaclelike, to our backsides

and hips, who knows? They are

pockets for items that don't

exist, items whose use would

appear to lie ahead of having a

place to put them. A kind of

meta-preparedness is taking

place here, an almost paranoid

expectancy that some might

attribute to premillennial

jitters. In this light, it's

easy to see these superfluous

zips and clips, pockets and pads

not as expressions of usefulness

but as admissions of

helplessness: We now have

compartments for tools to solve

problems we don't even know we

have yet.


This amorphous anticipation is

ironic, considering the fact

that messenger bags themselves

evolved out of a specific task.

Then again, if we were to

restrict tools to the tasks

intended, the world wouldn't

have Duchamp or gas

huffing. And the makers of

bike-messenger bags would be

poor indeed. As a sales manager

at messenger-bag manufacturer

Manhattan Portage said, "If we

were to do business by solely

relying on bike messengers, we

would still have only one

telephone line."

courtesy ofAnn O'Tate

[Purchase the Suck Book here]