Is it just me, or are corporate offices these days starting to feel eerily like high school? No, I’m not talking about gossip. Or the cliquishness. Or the fact that you encounter gossip and cliquishness in “the cafeteria.” I’m talking about the backpacks. They’re everywhere.
But instead of crummy old nylon Jansports, it’s a sea of smooth, streamlined leather, lush suede, and smart, preppy-looking canvas—all bearing very hitherto un-backpackian names such as Gucci, John Varvatos, and Prada. Yes, grown men with children, mortgages, and thriving careers are using backpacks—the very same over-the-shoulder carryalls that my mom used to stuff PB&Js in—as briefcases, gym bags, and weekend totes. Suffice it to say: they’re not just for kids anymore.
But no matter how fancy these luxury backpacks may look, the age-old question remains: should you—a fully-grown working man—single-strap or double-strap it? When you were in high school, of course, the former projected cool confidence, the latter unabashed responsibility. But times change, and—as movie 21 Jump Street brilliantly noted—the one-strap look fell out of favor at around the same time as baggy pants, the Rachel haircut, and TV shows starring Jason Priestley.
But don’t fret. If you’re entering the backpack game for the first time since Fresh Prince was riding high on TV, we’ve spoken to the experts and answered the question once and for all. And for more great style advice, don’t miss our 20 Definitive Style Rules for Men Over 40.
Wearing a backpack with a suit is perilous territory. “In general, guys really should try to avoid carrying a backpack when wearing a suit,” says Megan Collins, founder and editorial director of men’s lifestyle site Style Girlfriend. “And it’s not just because of the less-than-professional appearance that results from combining an outfit that suggests you close business deals on the golf course with an accessory that suggests you’re down for Frisbee golf on the quad.”
No, the bigger danger is that the straps of a backpack will crush the shoulder pads of a suit and cause wrinkles all down the back of the jacket that can be tough to get out. “All that wear and tear contributes to the hastened demise of a garment that’s not cheap to replace,” she says.
If your backpack is nice enough—like, say, a simple black, gray, or brown leather option from a brand like Tumi or Cole Haan—you can definitely wear it with a suit. Just be sure to carry your jacket and double strap it.
If you’re wearing a tie, the backpack straps will offer a nice symmetry (not unlike wearing suspenders). Also, it’ll be easier for you to drape your jacket over one arm and casually put your other hand in your pocket.
Take the suit out of the equation and your backpack style options certainly multiply. “If you work in a more casual environment, one where you’re wearing a button-down and jeans or chinos to work, you should wear a backpack made of leather, canvas, or twill, instead of the more tech-y nylon numbers you used in school (or have received in a corporate conference swag bag),” says Collins.
She suggests Herschel and Everlane for stylish and affordable options. “Leather backpacks are great with anything from dress pants to denim,” advises Joseph Rosenfeld, personal brand and style strategy expert. “However, canvas backpacks do not rise to the level of dress pants and are best for denims, khakis, and shorts.”
But as for the straps? Well, you should make it a point to double-strap it whenever possible. The reality is, two-strapping will give a sense of deliberateness to the outfit and makes the backpack look more like a carefully selected accessory (which it should be), rather than something you’ve just thrown over your shoulder. Also, if you’re carrying lots of stuff, you’ll want to defray the load across the whole of your back. At the end of the day, single-strapping is not only a look that’s fallen out of fashion, but it’s one that can actually lead to lower back pain, among other spinal afflictions.
However, there is one exception to the rule: if it’s hot out. Single-strapping means less contact between your backpack and your back, and rocking that throwback look means you’ll protect your clothes from any unwanted sweat.
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