Perfectly pithy stencilled sign? Check. Warm gloves and comfortable shoes? Check. Clear backpack? Say what? For those traveling to the Women's March on Washington this Saturday, there's a new security guideline: "Backpacks are not permitted unless they are clear and no larger than 17"X12"X6" (coloured transparent bags are not permitted)." Clear backpacks and bags are de rigeur at some stadiums and festivals, such as Freaknight. But they're not the typical handbag choice for most people, unless you're an NFL fan or a very nostalgic raver. What does it signify -- if anything -- to put your private belongings on display? As those attending the march race to click on the Amazon options, which are going quickly, we take a look at the clear backpack's history, from the controversial to the counterculture to the couture.
A 90s staple, clear backpacks were a signature of American high schoolers who flaunted their tampons and tattered copies of Rilke. As part of the wave of irony that included baby barrettes and knee socks, transparent plastic backpacks were printed with unicorns and smiley faces. Like all things childlike and playful, they became raver territory, filled with pacifiers and candy and paired with rainbow-hued platform sneakers. The bubble bag took it one step further with little toys embedded in the plastic.
Fashion designers have also played with the irresistible aesthetic possibilities of the transparent bag. As early as the 1950s, women carried lucite clutches as evening bags, sometimes inlaid with glitter. Chanel has dabbled with see-through versions of its purses over the years, going so far as to make a purse-within-a-plexiglass-purse in 2009. For spring 2010, Miuccia Prada sent translucent grandma handbags down the runway. In 1996, Hermès made a transparent Kelly. There's a kind of perverse Emperor's New Clothes appeal to these bags, which don't do their essential job very well.
But while some choose to show off their personal belongings as a fashion statement, others have it imposed on them. Following mass school shootings like Columbine in the late 90s, public schools across America began adopting clear backpack rules. Intended to make schools "safer" for students, they also completely robbed them of their privacy. One Annapolis school angered kids in 2003 by screening not just for guns, but for alcohol, drugs, Gameboys, and CD players. A Baltimore Sun writer noted at the time, "The clear backpacks make a very profound statement to the students: We don't trust you. We don't believe in you. We expect you to break our most serious rules."
As a symbol, the clear backpack sends a mixed message. It's both a fashionable counterculture symbol and a symptom of oppression. But this is not about symbolism; it's about safety. It sucks that clear backpacks are a necessary precaution against guns and weapons at a march promoting basic human rights and nonviolence. However, we live in a country where schools, marathons, and churches are no longer sacred. We're marching because we want to live in a world in which we don't have to wear clear backpacks! But in the meantime, nab that last Eastsport on Prime, break out your old Lisa Frank model, or just squeeze everything in a smaller bag, but no matter what, keep those hands free to hold your sign high.
Text Rory Satran