In November of 1998 I read Roland Barthes' Mythologies and, in a way, it changed my life. I resolved to write my own series of short essays about cultural phenomena of my time. I may eventually continue, but at the time I only got around to writing one of these essays, and it was about the phenomenon of the "little backpack." A slightly edited version follows.
I'm not sure what their official name is, if they have one. Those ridiculous little things that women and girls wear on the small of their backs, slung low. They are really purses. But what else are they? The interesting thing with fashion accessories such as this is often their origins in a subculture. These backpacks, for instance, have bubbled up from the rave scene, as far as i can tell. It used to be that only little raver girls would wear them, and they would come in a variety of "radical" styles, like fake fur, vinyl, rubber, all in various brilliant colors, or totally transparent, or shaped like a teddy bear or somesuch.
The little backpack was completely a rebellious fashion item, an antimainstream emblem of individuality. But at some point, the aboveground fashion industry seemed to notice them, and realized that they seemed to have a utility and conceptual interest for the mainstream yuppie/hipster. Now designer brands like Calvin Klein and such manufacture subdued versions out of nylon or leather, black or blue or with one stripe. Like an older ladies blobby purse, but suspended from 2 rather unergonomic shoulder straps on the back.
What these backpacks are saying, when worn, is: I am more sophisticated, more grown-up and fashionable, than when I wore a regular backpack in college. I don't have bulky books or binders to haul around campus. I have a wallet, a lipstick, perhaps a datebook and a tampon. These will fit handily into my tiny backpack. And yet, I am younger, hipper, more "with it" than my elders who still carry those nerdy, old-fashioned, traditionally-feminine purses. My purse is on my back, keeping my hands free, I can be a liberated woman, yet still not have to put things in my pockets and interrupt the curves of my feminine figure.
No matter how the feminist movement moves forward, it seems the taboo against using pockets is as strong as ever, except for butch dykes with their heavy leather wallets chained to their belts. So, yes, you must have something to put all your STUFF in. You can't put your stuff in your pockets, because then your attractive ass won't be as attractive. So the little backpack is a liberation (or so the story goes). It tells the woman that she can be a woman, but still not follow the staid convention of carrying a traditional handbag, or succumb to a bulky, uncouth, "real" backpack, with its outdoorsy (camping or hiking), functional connotations. One can be an urban sophisticate, and still have a place for your bankcard and your makeup -- right above your butt, but not on it.
okay, well, not as wordy or intellectual as Barthes, but still, a nice start, and a valid set of observations and theories, if i do say so myself.
Perhaps next I will write about that newer trend in fashionable toting: the bike messenger bag.