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The Backpack as Fashion Statement

Why we reinvent

By Lily K. Calcagnini

When I was 13, the words “practical” and “Jansport” gave me hives. Anything featuring a mesh pouch specifically engineered to hold a water bottle made me want to vomit. Entering high school, I couldn’t think of anything more preposterous than buying a backpack for my books.

To understand my singular opinion on backpacks and their ridiculousness, you need to know a bit about six-year-old me, who had so many thoughts and opinions to share that she almost never shut up. When adults struck up conversations with me, likely assuming that I was a shy and benign kindergartener, I could launch into hours-long discussions peppered with observations from snack time, ranging from my dislike of Goldfish to my theories on our class pet’s level of emotional fulfillment.

But as I—voice squeaky, toothpick-thin arms gesticulating wildly—chatted with any adult who would listen to me, I noted with chagrin that people saw me more as “adorable” than “adult.” I winced when people called me cute. Surely they thought my ideas were darling and tiny like me.

I was no fool. I knew what grown-ups looked like—we had plenty of them at my high school—but I didn’t fit the bill. What was I missing? A shoulder bag.

Girls in my high school carried bags from class to class like adults carrying purses. Though school rules prohibited kindergarteners from doing the same, I found a surprising amount of solace in knowing that, in nine short years, I would sling a bag over my shoulder and stylishly saunter towards the horizon of my adult life.

Like a Harvard freshman waits for the last day of Expos, I spent much of my young life looking forward to the day when adults would look at me and see a peer. And everything I wanted—to be in high school, trusted with responsibility, viewed as an adult—became inextricably linked to the bag I envisioned on my arm.

Nine years later I did find myself slinging a book bag over one shoulder and walking into high school with untouchable confidence. I didn’t know who my friends would be, I feared that the workload would batter me, and I was unsure of the location of the cafeteria, but any emotional luggage I brought with me to ninth grade fit into my purse. Every time I needed a notebook, I encountered its loud, graphic zebra-print and remembered that I was a spiffy, capital-G Grown-Up, and I could handle anything.

My trusty book bag held up like a champ through four intense years of studying and friendship drama. Save a certain air of jaded worldliness (read: layer of grime) it didn’t have before, it came out relatively unscathed. But by then, I was tired of looking at it. It had been the primary accessory of every outfit I’d worn for the past four years. And everything it represented—high school and its side order of wisdom, knowledge, and responsibility—was already mine. The four-year stint that had once seemed a far off dream, the capstone to my education and maturation, had now become a sweet-and-sour memory.

It was delicious, but I was full.

Now, I’d be shouldering a different load.

For one, I wasn’t so anxious to get my youth out of the way. As teachers expected more of me, I had likewise become harder on myself, and I began to see that being a “Grown-Up” was difficult and often unglamorous. I yearned for the days when I believed that being a Big Girl was as easy as wearing a purse.

And despite my first few run-ins with the grit and grief of growing up, I was excited for a fresh start and a new set of promises. Namely that I could leave behind my uniform, live with my peers, and choose what I would learn. That the things I needed most, like a new measure of independence and better friendships, would be mine.

I wanted professors, TAs, failures, entryways.

And listservs. So many listservs.

And I needed a new backpack to convey all of these things.

Fickle? Wasteful? Vain? I don’t think so. Much valid criticism launched at the fashion industry is that it perpetuates a culture of wastefulness and superficiality. But barring issues of brand-name elitism and pure vanity, shopping isn’t always just a question of handing over money and getting a commodity in exchange.

Though fashion is foremost a visual expression, sometimes sartorial statements are selfish. That is, they reflect an internal shift in the wearer. My backpack is just as obnoxious as it was before. (I traded in the zebra stripes for a camouflage print that I believe is cool, but my most style-conscious friend tells me otherwise.) But these days, I don’t dress myself in the hopes that I can change the immutable: that I’m young, that I go to school, that there’s a lot I know but much more I don’t.

I bought a backpack because I’m a student, and that is what students buy. Younger iterations of me would scoff at the way I earnestly don my book-filled backpack each morning. But I love being a girl with so many interesting classes—and books to match—that my backpack simply must distribute their weight to both sides of my aching spine.

That, and camo is totally in these days.

Lily K. Calcagnini, ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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