Look At Those Clothes!

Musings on style and fashion

On a Man’s Right to Look Like a Big Goof

Backpack by ronnieb

Photo by Ronnieb

“Just like commuters who wear baseball caps and sneakers with their Brooks Brothers suits, a backpack makes a grown man look ridiculous. Unless the man happens to be scaling Mount Everest.

 A backpack worn with office attire makes you look like a little kid. It makes you look like you’re carrying Intermediate Spanish or The Scarlet Letter inside your book bag. It makes you look dumpy. It makes you look like a big goof. It makes you look like your mommy dressed you and said, ‘Look both ways before crossing the busy street, sweetie.’

People have a right to look like big goofs. They have aright to look like their mommies dressed them. But it doesn’t help our national image. It makes us look puny. Vladimir Putin’s guys don’t wear backpacks.”

“I sometimes think of famous historical figures who would have slit their wrists rather than wear a backpack to work. Winston Churchill. Nathan Hale. William Tecumseh Sherman. Tecumseh himself.

If David Farragut had said, ‘Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead’ while wearing a backpack, his troops would not have damned the torpedoes and would not have gone full speed ahead. They would have run home to their mommies.”

Joe Queenan, “Please Don’t Leave Me Holding this Bag,”  The Wall Street Journal, September 27/28, 2014

Rather a long quote, but Queenan’s column struck me as so funny, so comically indignant—and so apt—that I had to share all these bits with you.

I live in a Business-Suit-Free Zone (an odd combination of rural, academic, and so determinedly, myopically liberal that it’s almost conservative), and I’m usually in New York on the weekends, when the business suit wearers have shed their daily armor. So until I read Queenan’s column, I hadn’t realized that men were wearing backpacks with their business suits.

Nor was I aware of how goofy a man so attired could look until I envisioned Winston Churchill similarly kitted out. What a crackup! Winston, with his portly dignity, his pinstriped suit, his huge cigar, and his nylon straps flapping as he whirls around to face a reporter who’s pursuing him and bowls over one of his attendants with his bulky backpack. Winston in an audience with Her Majesty, bowing reverently and then almost falling over as he forgets he has the pack on and tries to sit in one of those spindly, elegant Queen-style chairs. Winston and Franklin and Joseph meeting at Yalta, pulling out their water bottles for a quick swig before they shrug off their packs and get down to the business of sorting out the end and the aftermath of World War II.

Then I found a photo over at Real Men Real Style of a guy doing the suit-and-a-backpack thing (which they discuss under the title “Style Sin #15”). Yep, Queenan nailed it alright: definitely goofy. Many times, the high-low mix works beautifully, but this just isn’t one of those times.

What’s wrong? Well, from a purely practical point of view, Real Men Real Style points out that backpack straps damage the suit fabric. I bet the straps also rumple the fabric, making the guy look like he slept in his clothes. (Well, maybe he did, but does he really want to advertise that news to the rest of us?)

On to aesthetics. Real Men points out what ought to be obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to look: The bulky pack ruins the trim silhouette of the suit. And the combo signals that the wearer is both aesthetically and culturally clueless: He doesn’t get (or yes, maybe doesn’t care) that suits and backpacks both send cultural messages, and those messages clash in a way that’s kind of disturbing as well as ludicrous. Like it or don’t, but that’s not the surest path to business success. Or good citizenship. (We all have to look at you, you know!)

More? Check out the photo and the “please don’t” advice from Megan Collins over at Style Girlfriend.

As Queenan says, “People have the right to look like big goofs.” And yes, a few very confident guys will manage to carry off this (or any) dissonant look with aplomb. But that still leaves us with an awful lot of visual pollution, if nothing else. So do us all a favor guys: Pack it in. There’s gotta be a better way.




Categories: Fashion Quote of the Week

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4 replies

  1. I wonder if a more stylish, manly backpack couldn’t be designed–not of shapeless, ripstop nylon, but of the same stuff as the rest of the business attire–leather, classy fabrics and with a trim, squarish silhouette. I feel sorry for guys, especially given the range of clothing design available to women.


    • Ah, yes, men typically have far fewer choices than women, don’t they? That may be because many of them care very little about clothing and accoutrements and thus get the “not much” that they demand. Now, on the topic of a trim, squarish backpack made of quality material–certainly that would be an improvement. Take a look at this one over at Fossil. But note that it’s in the travel section, not the work section! And although the slim silhouette of one like this would make a man look less dumpy than the standard grade-school or college style, I think the straps of this or any backpack would still abrade the suit fabric (especially a fine wool), rumple the shoulders, and fit awkwardly over the lapels.

      Style Girlfriend’s blog post on this topic references a Fossil bag. The link is bad, but she calls it a “wax-coated canvas duffel,” so perhaps she was referring to one like this for guys (like the one who wrote to her) who have to carry a lot. Quite handsome, I think, and carryable wither in the hand or cross body to leave both hands free for texting or whatever (while causing less rumpling and damage, perhaps, than the double straps of a backpack.

      I myself favor messenger bags when I need to haul a lot yet still look snazzy, but I’ve seen some comments from men who find the pressure on one shoulder uncomfortable. Alrighty then, how about what that duffel, or what Fossil calls “work bags”–updated attaches or briefcases with sturdy handles in addition to the should strap so Mr. Biz can switch off when his shoulder gets tired? I happen to know that you have a terrific eye for design, so if you have other ideas, I hope you’ll share them!

      P.S. As a dedicated thrifter, I’m not suggesting that guys can’t possibly work out this little style problem without dropping a few hundred bucks for a Fossil bag. There are sales, clearances, and decent knockoffs. And I bet Style Girlfriend woule be happy to help guys find all of the above.


  2. I Love your writing! This is Hilarious!
    I read this while eating my breakfast and spitting coffee out 10 feet in the air laughing so hard my stomach hurt. Keep it coming!


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