The Eternal Backpack Question, Answered: Is It Cooler to Two-Strap or to One-Strap?

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Oct. 31 2013 11:29 PM

When Did Two-Strapping Get Cooler Than One-Strapping?

A Slate backpack investigation.

21 Jump Street

Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson; photo courtesy Columbia Pictures

Toward the beginning of the 2012 comedy 21 Jump Street, Officer Jenko (Channing Tatum), a onetime cool kid, gives his partner some advice as they prepare to infiltrate the ranks of the cool kids at Sagan High. “You gotta one-strap it,” Jenko chides Officer Schmidt (Jonah Hill). Schmidt, a onetime nerd, is two-strapping—wearing his backpack over both shoulders. That is not, warns Jenko, what cool kids do.

This advice may sound obvious to all cool kids of a certain age, but when the officers make their debut at school, times have changed. Jenko’s attitude—“I don’t care about anything,” he announces—has gone out of style. The cool kids are into diversity, environmentalism, and, worst of all, trying. And symbolizing this generational sea change: “Everybody’s two-strapping it,” notes Schmidt.

When I first watched this scene, I thought: Funny bit, but is it right? I, like everyone cool (or trying to be cool) in my high school, one-strapped all the way. It was a foundational tenet of cool—you might argue about what kind of music was cool, or what clothes, or what hairstyles, but it was a given that one-strapping was the only way to wear a backpack. Is one-strapping really not cool anymore? And if so, how could something once so cool become so not? My search for the answer sent me on a quest in which I’d consult pediatric orthopedic surgeons, re-examine decades of pop culture, and track down the one consummately cool high-schooler from East Amherst, N.Y., who might have the answer.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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The first step was obvious: determining if and when, exactly, this happened. Left without any serious research on the subject—even chiropractors and pediatric orthopedists who have studied the effect of backpacks couldn’t point to any data—I decided to collect some data myself.

After speaking with 75 ex-students and students from all over the country, spanning 60 years of high-schoolers—from the class of 1965 to the class of 2026—the data (however unscientific my polling) were clear. Every ex-student from the class of 1994 and earlier, 12 students, had, to a man, one-strapped. “Everyone one-strapped. No exceptions,” reported a graduate of the class of 1991. “I one-strapped all through college,” reported one of his female classmates.

131030_COOL_piechart1

Starting with the class of 1995, however, the number of two-strappers began to very slowly increase. One ’95-er, who noticed one particularly cool male classmate of hers switching to two-strapping, followed his lead. (More on him later.) A member of the class of ’97 remembered doing the same. Nevertheless, most still one-strapped—it was “the only way,” reported two separate members of the class of ’96. (One member of the class of 2001 even recalled, “Actually, I'm pretty sure I had a backpack that only had one big diagonal strap ... What happened to those Forrest???”)

131030_COOL_piechart2-fixed

The real sea change from one strap to two seemed to occur in the mid-2000s. Before this time there was the occasional two-strapper, but starting with the class of 2005, two-strappers began to dominate, outnumbering their peers. “By high school, I’d say pretty much every guy did the two straps,” said one graduate of 2005 (who remembered that most women ditched backpacks altogether). “I don’t remember one-strapping ever being cool in actuality, it was always in theory,” mused another. “Like on TV if you were cool you had one strap, but in person it didn’t really make a difference.” (This was news to me and my classmates from Glastonbury High School’s Class of 2005, who largely remembered one-strapping being the only cool way.)

131030_COOL_piechart3

By the time the class of 2008 started shouldering their backpacks, the change was complete. Every backpack-wearing respondent from then on, from the class of 2008 through the class of 2027—20 former and current students—used both straps. More, they claimed that they always used two straps, and their classmates did, too. (The only exception was one current 5-year-old, who, according to his father, “occasionally one-straps.”)

For many, the idea of one-strapping was silly or uncool, or never even occurred to them. “I wore my backpack with both straps, as did most people,” wrote one 2010 graduate. “I don’t remember ever having a conversation about how to wear a backpack in high school; no one seemed to notice.” “I think one-strapping, even temporarily, is unnecessary and unhelpful,” wrote one 13-year-old. A former college classmate of mine even told me, “I now teach sixth grade and it’s all about the backpacks with the extra straps and clasps. All straps on, all clasps closed.”

131030_COOL_piechart4-fixed

Extra straps? Something had happened, starting around the mid-’90s, and finishing around the mid-’00s, that changed the way that kids wear their backpacks. But what could have caused such a radical shift in behavior? Intense data analysis, interviews, and archival research led me to three hypotheses.

* * *

1. The Cultural Hypothesis

If one-strapping, and later two-strapping, were about being cool, then something in the nature of cool must have changed. I turned to the source that tells us what’s cool: pop culture.

It’s no surprise at all that movies and TV reflected the above trends almost exactly. Take a look at any ’80s teen movie—Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), or Heathers (1988)—and you’ll find almost nothing but one-strappers. In Fast Times, for example, one-strapping isn’t about clique or comportment. It’s just what everyone does. Students of every type sport one bare shoulder, whether it be the ripped shoulder of surf-stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) or the skinny one of dutiful Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold).

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) both one-strap.

Universal Pictures

In ’90s movies, the trend, at first, continues. When the title character returns to high school for the first time in years in Billy Madison (1995), everyone is one-strapping. In Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) laments the way that all the guys walk around her high school’s campus dressed like this:

Paramount Pictures
In Clueless, just about everyone one-straps.

Paramount Pictures

But then things start to shift. In Election (1999), the way characters carry their book bags helps define their characters. The overachieving Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) wears her bag over both arms. Her opponent, the airheaded Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), covers only one of his athletic shoulders.

Election
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) two-straps, and Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) one-straps.

Paramount Pictures

In 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), similarly, it’s a mix. Most of the heroes—when they use backpacks—two-strap, and the one-strappers tend to be students like the conceited Joey Donner:

10 Things I Hate About You
Joey (Andrew Keegan) one-straps, while underdog Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) two-straps.

Touchstone Pictures

In other words, these movies reflect a trend away from depicting everyone one-strapping and toward using one-strapping as a broad way to signal “cool kid” or, in the case of characters like Donner, “douchebag.” From the mid-2000s on—from Brick (2005) to the High School Musical trilogy (2006–2008) to Easy A (2010)—teen movies seem to have shown just about everyone two-strapping it. In The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), when Peter Parker protects his (two-strapping) classmates by battling the Lizard in the halls of his high school, he two-straps it the whole time.

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