“Objects unlock memories,” according to the French-American psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille, who consults for major companies on the psychological underpinnings of consumer goods. “We want to live in an archetype and we want a car and jacket that are also archetypes.”
Few objects, of course, are more overtly archetypal than a suitcase, which, like a portable house or a shell we haul around or behind us or on our backs, is a box for holding the material dimensions of identity. This seemed to be at least partly the point the artist Toland Grinnell was making last year when he installed 20 custom traveling trunks at the Brooklyn Museum. Text panels posted around the building explained that the artwork was a commentary on consumerism and on our particular cultural fondness for the trappings of luxury and excess. To my eye, though, the trunks—built to contain a smartly collapsible sink or a stove or a wine rack or bed—called to mind not excess so much as the practicality of military furniture from an earlier era, ingeniously devised to provide home comforts to, say, Napoleon’s army on the Egyptian campaign. All nomads, professional and otherwise, bring along reminders of the places they have left behind them. And so even the fancy gilded tg monograms on Grinnell’s suitcases evoked, in a way, the cheery and somehow also slightly sad little ribbons that people affix to their luggage to help differentiate one black bag from another in the baggage-claim scrum.
Unwieldy as they were, the collapsible contents also called to mind the way one has of condensing one’s own apparent necessities into a suitcase for every new journey—the clothes, the particular toilet articles, the shoes (and shoe trees), the folding leather travel picture frame, the books and secret snacks (what if they don’t sell Famous chocolate wafers in Brazil?). Whether folded or crammed or sealed in Ziploc bags, the contents of a suitcase are intimately, almost achingly, biographical, and that is at least partly why it is not the charred fuselage that draws the eye in a photograph of a plane or train wreck, but the cardigan caught in a tree.
Of course, a suitcase is more tool than metaphor, says Don Norman, a professor at Northwestern University, author of Emotional Design, and a former vice president at Apple. Still, he concedes that we are “carrying not just the clothes and necessities,” when we pack a bag. “We’re carrying other things.”
For a start, we are hauling along our status as members of a mobile, leisured class—a truth that Norman has also pointed out, as did the economist Thorstein Veblen before him. And while it is fact that an awful lot of luggage at this point is cheapo and black-bag generic, it is also plain that Louis Vuitton did not become a multibillion-dollar enterprise by accident.
Norman likes his suitcase to look “nondescript and not expensive,” probably because he knows what people who carry Vuitton luggage will certainly confirm—that an LV monogram is often read as an open invitation to pilfer, steal, or slash. “I want my suitcase to look ragged and worn, to be a signal that I’m penniless,” he says.
After decades of travel, I want something else from my bag. I want it to be sturdy and capacious, to have clasps that will hold, and more room than is immediately apparent, and to function as what the writer Winifred Gallagher describes as “a transitional object, an extension of me, my friend.’’
Against the myriad anxieties and uncertainties of travel, my big beat-up Globe-Trotter in some ways both resembles and stands in for the family and friends and home that I abandon temporarily each time I hit the road. I expect it, in its own clunky way, to evoke what psychologists call “positive associations.” At the moment, however, what I want most is to have it back, not so much because it is a security blanket, my symbolic, portable home, but because after five days without it, I could use some fresh clothes.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times. He eventually got his suitcase back.