Friday, October 24, 2008

How to spot a German #2: The Fanny Pack

There are fashions that come, then, thankfully, go. Brillo creme, acid wash jeans and trucker hats have, like the dinosaurs, had their hey day and thankfully vanished into the realm of embarrassing anecdote and ironic decadal theme party.

For the last dozen years of my life I lived happily believing the fanny pack was one of these extinct fashion accessories. Around 1995 someone came to the realization that we are proud placental mammals and an extra pocket at the waist is an evolutionary anachronism and fashion catastrophe.

I don't deny the versatility of a fanny pack. It frees up your hands that might be occupied with a purse, large bag or eucalyptus leaves. It's the perfect size for your wallet, tickets, keys and a cell phone. This is why the fanny pack will forever be tied (or clipped) to the over-stressed tourist who needs to keep track of multiple important papers and trinkets. But the stressed tourist is not on the cutting edge of fashion or trying to gain street cred.

The cutting edge and street cred are reserved for the cool kids standing by the newspaper stand making fun of the tourist and his maps. I used to think the fanny pack was reserved for the tourist. Until I came to Germany.

When I first arrived I was struck by how many of the clippable-pockets I saw on people riding the trains and walking the streets. Then I reminded myself that European tourist-traffic flow through Frankfurt, Marburg and Bonn is much heavier than tourist-traffic trough Cincinnati or Columbus.

But, not all of the people sporting their fanny packs on their hips were tourists. Many were slick European trend-setters with their hair gelled into a Euro-mullet dyed six different shades of red, rocking Chuck Taylor's with over cinched ball caps perched delicately over the whole ensemble.

When I walk home, I shoulder through knots of young people in trendy jeans and jackets, all proudly rummaging through their fanny packs. I'm sorry but if you are trying to pull off the hard-boiled product of the street, you can't pull it off sporting a bag around your waist. Your gang looks like my family on vacation in 1993.

If Europe dictates what the U.S. will be wearing next year, I don't think I want to come home. I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. I also wouldn't be able to resist the urge to shoot my hand out and unsnap that buckle perched so temptingly on everyone's left hip.

I have several theories for the retention if not resurgence of the fanny pack in Germany which, like the Coelacanth, seems to have emerged from the security of extinction to plague the world with a dorky fashion statement.

1) Tight pants. It's a well known fact that if an American man wants to blend in on the European street, he needs his pants so tight he may never reproduce. The Germans, being a practical people, don't strictly live by this fashion dictate, but the "relaxed fit" is not as common on Universität Bonn's campus as it is at Ohio State. By pulling every feature of your lower anatomy closer to yourself than God intended, you also limit critical pocket space. In today's world a man can no longer get by with just a money clip or wad of cash carefully wedged into his ultra-slim jeans. He must also tote his cell phone (Handy auf Deutsch), his debit card, his train/bus pass, about 15 Euros in change and a wad of keys. You can either wear a looser pair of Hosen, or you can sprout auxiliary pockets. Perhaps the fashion savvy German prefers the later.

2) Pencil cases. The Germans are an organized people (some, and occasionally myself, would argue overly organized. I say that with love). German backpacks are a labyrinth of extra pockets and crevices. Wallets sport pockets for each denomination of bill and coin. When I sit down in class with graduate students and masters students, out come pencil cases filled with highlighters, pencils and pens in a variety of hues.

I haven't used a pencil case since...never. I had a desk in grade school where I kept my utensils. Sure, it was trendy to have your pencil case with six different unicorn erasers, but the case really wasn't necessary. Then in high school I had a backpack where I kept everything I needed, or I used my pockets (as I still do) for the one pen or pencil that I am likely to need for the rest of the day. Back-ups and specialty tools (a yellow highlighter, a red pen) are in my bag. But Germans still retain the pencil case and display their full battery of writing weaponry for every class they attend. Perhaps the fanny pack is simply a pencil case without a backpack to live in. It has broken off it's dependence on the larger receptacle and run solo, the Remora that has discovered the value of independent locomotion.

I wanted to illustrate this post with a picture of a German trend-setter, but I need to figure out how to ask to take someone's picture before such a portrait can be attempted. For the sake of warning everyone on the West side of the pond of the coming trends, I decided my observations could wait no longer. Something has survived and very soon it may be invading your shores. I leave you in charge of warding off the assault.

Deutsche Heutewort: Waschbär - Raccoon (masculine)

Sehen sie das Waschbär? Er ist die Größe meiner Mülleimer!
Do you see that raccoon? It's the size of my trashcan!

Note: Waschbär, as you might have guessed, literally means "Washing Bear." Raccoons are renowned for their adorable need to dunk everything they want to eat into the nearest stream, using their delicate little paws to manipulate the morsel.


Erin Davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolyn said...

You never see the last of any fashion. I mean, skinny jeans came back, so it's just a matter of time before the fashion gods decide that everyone should give their jeans a good acid wash.

As for the fanny pack, I think it's brilliantly functional. There's no risk of leaving it somewhere, and no need to cast about awkwardly for a place to set it at parties. (Although maybe even the Germans leave their fanny packs at home for parties...)

In America, the fanny pack will return with a vengeance in the next generation. You'll cringe when your children wear fanny packs like you did when your parents insisted on wearing them at Disney World. Your children will cringe at your bulging pocket.

EvolutionaryBiologist said...

I never saw the end of the fanny pack. I still take my out for my yearly Cedar Point trip. Exceptionally helpful because it does not just fit small stuff, but actually 4 wallets, 4 cell phones, a book, and umbrella, and all importantly a cross-stitch. I would have taken it into the field too, if I didn't think that you guys would make fun of me so. Just putting it out there.

Matt said...

As I said, I don't deny the utility of the fanny pack. I deny the ability to be taken seriously while wearing the fanny pack.

Neither of you are hanging with the local Tennenbusch street gang trying to pick up hunnies with the boys with your pack clipped around your waist. That's ridiculousness, though I challenge each of you to pull it off and prove me the fool.

As for what my children will think. They will have chips implanted in each finger, one for opening their front door, one for using their debit account, one for turning on the car and another for activating the cell phone link implanted in their skulls.

They won't have anything in their pockets because they will be wired to "The Network." Cash, checks and tickets will be extinct. Maybe chapstick will still need to be nestled in a pocket, but otherwise they will be able to travel light, free of fanny packs and all accoutrement.

Carolyn said...

In response to the image issues that you have: unlike many things, fashion is pretty much culturally determined. Although to you (and most in the US) fanny packs are associated with dorky parents, why shouldn't they be associated with hipsters and gangsters in Germany? What if they're cool because you need a safe place to stash your stolen cash while leaving two hands free for a street fight? (Much like how droopy pants became fashionable among gangsters here - it meant that your belt had been taken from you in jail, so it was a sign of toughness. I mean, Germans could equally say, how can you be intimidating with your boxers showing?)