the origins of the fanny pack

i-D asks fashion historians how the iconic accessory became beloved by both the queer and hypebeast communities.

by Brian O'Flynn
23 July 2018, 1:45pm

The fanny pack was once a fashion pariah. Intensely uncool and shunned by all those with high-fashion sensibilities, it was nerdy and utilitarian, the sartorial calling card of camera-wielding tourists. To 00s teens like me, it was the sort of thing your embarrassing aunt would wear on her five-day package holiday to the Spain, and bring up every five minutes with a nagging refrain of “You can’t be too careful with pickpockets!”

This year at London Pride, as I battled through a tidal wave of sweaty, fanny pack-clad bodies pounding the hot tarmac of Regent Street, a realization (and mild sunstroke) came over me -- the fanny pack is back. It was everywhere. Rainbow bumbags stared down at me from the Pride window displays in Topshop. The march itself was a veritable catwalk of bumbags of all brands, shapes and sizes. I found myself striding into a shop at 1pm on parade day with a singular purpose -- secure a fanny pack, or be an outcast. I flounced up to the nearest saleswoman in a limp-wristed flurry, eyes darting all around me for the accessories section. As I opened my mouth, she raised her hand to stop me, looked me up and down (possibly assessing my glaring campness), and interrupted me sweetly: “Looking for a fanny pack, is it?” In that moment I knew -- this is the era of homosexual fanny pack-mania.

I formed an intense, near co-dependent relationship with my newly acquired fanny pack as Pride progressed. How did I ever function as a thotty gay without one? There I was, naked as the day I was born save for a tiny pair of black short shorts, slathered in lotion which passing strangers obligingly reapplied at regular intervals. Naught but a few square inches of my ribcage were covered by my faithful fanny pack, allowing unobstructed access to the delights of my torso for every thirsty homosexual I exchanged suggestive eye contact with in Soho Square -- and yet secured on my person was everything I could possibly need for the day; phone charger, minutely folded mesh t-shirt, IDs, cash -- everything but the kitchen sink.

"This association has ironically brought the fanny pack simultaneously into favor with two wildly disparate political factions -- the homosexuals and the hypebeasts."

The reassuring abrasion of my fanny pack strap became as familiar to me over that weekend as a mother’s embrace (and my fanny pack would never rain maternal judgement upon me for parading naked around central London shamelessly flirting with other topless twinks). The question is not how the fanny pack came back. The question should be why the unique charm and utility of this glorious accessory (can we call it a Poppers Purse?) ever fell out of the homosexual purview.

The fanny pack is, in fact, historic. Its ancestors were the leather pouches carried by primitive humans, which evolved into the chatelaine purses that can still be seen immortalized in medieval tapestries. In the 90s the contemporary fanny pack emerged as the “hash bags” used by ravers as handy vessels for poppers and pills. This might explain its resurgent street cred, given fashion’s current nostalgia for the 90s and rave culture. This association has ironically brought the fanny pack simultaneously into favor with two disparate political factions -- homosexuals and hypebeasts.

Much like the gays, many sneaker-loving, Supreme-wearing, Berghain-obsessed bros love rave culture too and are embracing the fanny pack -- or “waist bag” to use their No Homo rebranding. Given the deeply embedded homophobia and toxic masculinity in hypebeast culture, the overlap is amusing.

They probably don’t realise the fanny pack has been associated specifically with the queer community since the second-wave feminist lesbians of the 70s embraced the anti-fashion movement, favoring practicality over aesthetic. Despite these historic links, it seems that the recent gay resurgence of the fanny pack has been due to its high-fashion rebranding as the “belt bag” -- for example, by Moschino in 2012. It has grown in popularity among gay men, probably not just because it is practical, but because we’ve realized it can also be pretty.

Martin Pel of Brighton Museum and curator of the exhibition Queer Looks explains that fanny packs aren’t an exclusively queer fashion -- and of course he’s right. Fanny packs have enjoyed a universal revival, are now essential festival wear for heterosexuals, sported even by Kylie Jenner. However, eager not to hurt my feelings too much, he adds: “They're pretty utilitarian accessories when out partying and who wants to carry around a bag or have bulky pockets in this weather! The queer communities are pretty party central and will have a dance at the drop of a hat -- so maybe that’s why fanny packs are more visible in gay culture than straight.”

Another spirit guide in my pseudo-religious journey of fanny pack worship, fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell puts my epiphany at the World Fanny Pack Convention -- oh, sorry -- my epiphany at London Pride into context. “The fanny pack is the perfect accessory for this age of pride and protest that we're living in,“ she says. “On a march, it can carry all the essentials and still leave your hands free for holding witty signs. I've noticed it on all kinds of people, not just the gay community, but it makes sense that men would embrace it as a purse alternative.”

Fred Dennis, curator of the A Queer History of Fashion exhibit at FIT, points me also to the culture of fitness in the gay male community as a crucial puzzle piece in the bumbag’s gay origin story: “When it first appeared, it was the perfect accessory for the emerging gym culture here in NYC. Unlike a back pack or bag it was small, self-contained and butch!”

The fanny pack exists at a cultural nexus, a confluence where all the tributaries of gay male culture -- clubbing, political protest, hypersexuality, fitness culture -- flood together into one roaring torrent of camp wearability. The perfect storage unit for a homosexual who wants to wave protest signs in near-pornographic nudity at 2pm and still be able to party all night without an annoying subway trip home.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

fanny pack
gay fashion