I was happy when the mini backpack moment ended in the 1990s. It was this cumbersome, awkward-looking bag that dangled tenuously on two long, floppy straps and imparted a supremely unflattering profile. It had this way of swinging from side to side as the wearer walked, like an amorphous, lazy mass of nylon and canvas, a victim of inertia. It always had a funhouse effect to me, seeing this Lilliputian-sized bag on a normal-sized person. But people loved it. Even though I did not care for it (I carried my average-sized bucket bag with an air of rebellion), I remember feeling a bit on the outside, as if the mass of people who did wear one all shared a collective consciousness. They were in the know in a way I was not.
Since the mini backpack or the giant handbag or even the so-unremarkable-it-was-remarkable gaucho pant of the early millenium, there has not been a unifying trend in which almost everyone participates. Magazines still announce the “it” items, but they almost never become best-sellers. Retailers peddle the latest “must-haves” only to find that their directive is not met with the same fever pitch it once did. The hunger for fashion has never been greater in America, and yet it has also never been so splintered. Something material has shifted in the consciousness of fashion, trends and styles. It begs the question, are we breaking out or just breaking down?
The internet seems like the natural culprit. An unlimited amount of exposure to an unlimited number of styles, iterations and self-proclaimed experts armed with iPhones. As a result, the most optimistic theory is that people feel enlightened and emboldened enough to stray from the herd.
But the answer is not so simple. We long for something more substantial and tactile than passing images. The internet does indeed put the world at our fingertips. It most certainly empowers every person to become an expert in everything, and yet the knowledge does not lead to meaning.
So now we find ourselves curious about the name of the village in southern France where our favorite brand of shoe is produced. We look at fewer shiny editorials in fashion magazines and at more candid street shots, compelled by what looks more authentic. We feel comforted, even gratified, when we find designers whose threads, dyes and pattern-makers are traceable by name and face. Our desire for legitimacy, continuity and originality combined with an inescapable anxiety of the artificial drives us to reject the dogma of trickle-down fashion in search of our own pure voice.
And it’s not only followers of fashion who find themselves in a crisis of authenticity; it is the paleo, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, gluten-free, locavore. It is the person who wishes we lived in the America of the 1950s or wished we were more like Europe or Austin “before it was commercialized.” It is the person with the puritanical command of exercise, food and schedule. We are constantly consuming but rarely experiencing the satiety of meaning and control.
You can see why I remember the mini backpack fondly. There was a certain purity to it, a very innocent and honest intention to participate, to experience the joy of novelty. It symbolized both progress and acceptance, which is fashion at its absolute, critical mass. But I would still never carry one.