MR PORTER’S Ultimate Guide To Backpacks

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MR PORTER’S Ultimate Guide To Backpacks

Words by Mr Adam Welch

16 August 2020

Backpacks are a playground staple that can fall out of favour once we hit a certain age. But as many outgoing, spirited and Instagram-receptive men-about-town are rediscovering – and, as a MR PORTER reader, we’re assuming you fall firmly into that camp – backpacks are an invaluable, stylish and near-ubiquitous means of stashing your stuff on the go.

There are a number of reasons for this: from our two-handed addiction to devices, to the increasing popularity of cycling, to the relaxation of workplace dress codes and the rise of workwear heritage brands. This has also not gone unnoticed by the fashion industry, which, with its affinity for all things outdoorsy and casual has taken various versions of this bag – from travel backpacks to military backpacks to business backpacks – to its heart (or at least slung one over its shoulders).

Given that each brand has its own interpretation, there is guaranteed to be one out there with your name on it – possibly in indelible ink on the label, scrawled by your mum. Of course, unlike most other bags, the backpack is one you actually wear, so it truly becomes part of your outfit. Here’s a guide to the most common styles of backpacks, and what to wear them with. But first, a history lesson…

01. A brief history of the backpack

Although we can trace the earliest example of strapping your wares to your back to around 3300 BC, we have to fast forward to 1878 – when an American called Mr Henry Merriam patented a canvas and wood rucksack – to get anywhere near the modern iteration of this now common and much-loved accessory. From 1908 to 1967, innovations in the world of backpacks accelerated – it was in this time period that the likes of Norwegian inventor Mr Ole Bergan, outdoorsman Mr Lloyd F Nelson and hiker Mr Gerry Cunningham added steel, zippers and made backpacks more lightweight. But it was when nylon came along in the late 1960s that the backpack game really changed. A little-known brand called JanSport, founded in 1967, almost singlehandedly made backpacks a popular and practical accessory on University campuses in the US into the 1970s and 1980s. Like many trends we see in contemporary fashion, these scholarly foundations formed the basis of the countless iterations we see on MR PORTER today.

02. Backpack styles (and how to wear them)

The leather backpack

Leather backpacks are a great way to buy into the backpack trend while retaining an air of irreverence. No schoolboy errors here. Additionally, black backpacks are a firm favourite with a more fashion-forward crowd, so if this is the camp you identify with, you’ve arrived at the right place. But how to pull them off? As a general rule, one’s leathers ought to agree: so if you’re wearing black leather shoes, for example, you would not wear a brown leather belt. Brown leather shoes and a black leather bag? Even more controversial. An exception to that rule, however, is demonstrated here where the smart black leather backpack stands out from the burgundy leather jacket. And that’s because aesthetically it would look odd (borderline hunchback) to wear a backpack over something that is too similar in colour and material.

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The travel backpack

This style of backpack is a little more rough and ready and akin to a rucksack than the more designer backpacks on offer. If you’re only going to buy one backpack, you’ll arguably get the most value for money out of one like this. It is the bag of choice for the light traveller who doesn’t want to haul a suitcase. Look for a good-quality bag fashioned from lightweight hardwearing canvas, or the kind of sturdy leather or suede that will age well with you, developing character with patina. This design won’t date, either. Sportier or fashion-forward backpacks often suit men on the younger side better, but one like this is all-age appropriate. Its versatility means you can dress it up with a blazer and indigo jeans for work, as pictured, or dress it down for a weekend city break

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The waterproof backpack

It’s a brave and/or foolhardy man who cycles anywhere in a white blazer. (Let’s assume his bike has good mud guards.) But here we see one of the key advantages of a backpack as a work bag: it allows you to ride to and from the office – something more and more men are doing. This is particularly useful if your office is a coffee shop or a hot desk at a coworking space, which means you need to carry all your accoutrements with you. There’s a balance to be struck here between choosing a technical bag that is waterproof and has enough cushioning and ventilation when riding, but is also smart enough to be taken into business meetings. The example pictured here just about passes the office-appropriate test, but a darker colour (black, grey, chocolate brown) would be a better bet. One more piece of advice: don’t be in too much of a rush when getting about town under your own steam. Think more leisurely pootling rather than frenzied pedalling or else when you take off your backpack you will reveal a backpack-shaped sweat patch, ie, the wrong kind of slick.

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The canvas backpack

One of the key drivers for the resurgence of the backpack in recent years has been the steady return of rugged brands such as Filson that are steeped in a generations-old history of craftsmanship. Save for the iPhone, there is a timelessness about this combination of military green raincoat and leather-trimmed heavy-duty canvas backpack. With their outdoorsy connotations, backpacks are seen as a manly alternative to the old-school briefcase. Replace the urban background here with an alpine one and this look still works. Waxed canvas hints at a spirit of adventure, whether that involves a mountain hike and a spot of trout fishing or venturing out to taste test a new farm-to-table pop-up in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. Not so much Mad Men as plaid men.

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The laptop-friendly backpack

One reason backpack sales continue to soar is simply that they’re practical. They are a bit like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag: you can fit a surprising amount in them. Now we’re no longer at school, it’s socially acceptable to distribute the load evenly across both shoulders. And instead of cutting off the circulation to your frozen fingers when taking the groceries home, you can keep your hands toasty in your hoodie pockets. Many of the more-technical bags have reinforced and ergonomically cushioned straps and separate compartments such as a padded laptop pocket or a sealed section for gym kit. An alternative is to make like our friend pictured here and put your laptop into a roomier, padded sporty bag. A backpack is a logical extension of broader sportswear influences that are continuing to shape menswear. Once again beware of any sartorial mismatch: sportier bags lend themselves to sportier looks.

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The military rucksack

There’s a lot going on in this multi-layered look, but it is assembled to account for changes in temperature throughout the day. Instead of a bulky coat, this gentleman has chosen to wear a down-filled gilet underneath his blazer and a neckerchief underneath his shirt – both of which can be undone or removed if necessary and carried in the backpack. This particular more rough-and-ready, military-inspired khaki rucksack sits neatly in the intersection of stylish and functional. The design is clean and minimal and the straps look sturdy and supportive, which is important if you’re going to be carrying it all day. Khaki is a versatile neutral colour that combines well with other tones, especially navy blue. Our modern-day addiction to smartphones is helping to drive backpack sales. Wearing the backpack on both shoulders allows you to stay hands-free so you can reply to important emails on the hoof.

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03. How to pack a backpack

Despite its school-based background, packing a backpack is not always child’s play. It might seem like overkill to dissect the art of putting things into this unassuming accessory, but MR PORTER is here to help you make the most of the restricted space that it offers. In the instructional video below, which takes the scenario of an overnight trip as the basis for our advice, we share a few tips on how to pack a backpack – in less than a minute. Master these essentials and never again find yourself desperately rummaging for your headphones.

Find out more here

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