The Appeal of the Backpack

Slate's Culture Blog
June 14 2010 10:25 AM

The Appeal of the Backpack

Remember the backpack? In the '90s they were de rigueur for sullen adolescents and fashionable adults alike. If you were like me (I fell into the moody teen category), you had a Jansport but wished you had a North Face. You liked to wear it low and loose for maximum insouciance/ skeletal damage . If you were a bit more girly than I, you might have had a mini backpack . And if you were both girly and rich, you may even have had a Prada backpack , as immortalized in 1999's Ten Things I Hate About You : "There's a difference between like and love, because I like my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack."

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But then, one day you looked in the mirror, and something just didn't seem right. Maybe it was the wall of crisp Manhattan Portage bags that had suddenly gone up in your local Urban Outfitters, or maybe you were just tired of looking like a turtle with a saggy shell. All of a sudden the style world had rejected backpacks. On the one hand, they were too big . On the other hand, they were too small . Parents of nerds were forcing their kids to wheel backpacks around like suitcases . The New York Times published essays about behind-the-times, backpack-wearing adults such as Jonathan Ames with titles like: " To Get the Girl, Lose the Knapsack ."  We asked ourselves: Why use two straps when one will do? The messenger bag felt modern, utilitarian, and simple. Soon, it was hard to remember that anyone besides young schoolchildren and unpretentious tourists had ever been onboard.

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But like the high-waisted jean and the flannel before it, the backpack appears to be back in full force. In New York this spring, fashionable people above the age of 12  are once again wearing them. Vogue recently told us it was OK to do so. Why have hipsters and celebrities returned to the fold? It's hard to pin down. Perhaps it's the fact that backpacks fit into a certain post-preppy, neo-nerd aesthetic popularized by pop culture phenoms like Vampire Weekend and Michael Cera . Our attraction to things made by old-timey American outfitters can't hurt. Maybe in an era of so many devices, the relatively low-tech backpack feels like a throwback, or maybe it actually just leaves our hands free to better operate our many devices. 

Or perhaps the backpack's appeal is as earnest, practical, and sweet as this 1985 appreciation from the New York Times :

The pack's flexibility means it can carry all manner of articles, from books and papers to gym clothes or dress shoes for a night out, without getting cumbersome. Its many buckles and zippers are apparently discouraging to pickpockets. And best of all, it frees the hands and arms for more important things, like searching for a bus token, pointing to a good buy in a store window or hugging a friend.

Remember bus tokens?

Julia Felsenthal is an assistant at Slate.

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