By now it’s no secret that the fanny pack, the most scorned member of the handbag family, has been experiencing a massive resurgence this year. Spotted during Fashion Week on both models and spectators alike, the current version of this hands-free accessory is much sleeker and chicer than its retro cousin (plus it’s not always worn around the waist). But what we think of as the original fanny pack—or “bumbag” as it’s called outside the States (in British English, fannies are completely different body parts)—has a history that’s as murky as its place in fashionable society.
An Australian woman named Melba Stone is widely credited with inventing the bumbag in 1962 (it is said she was inspired by kangaroo pouches). But when I started searching Time Inc.’s archives for an early reference to the bag, I came across a piece in Sports Illustrated dating back even further, to November 22, 1954. Titled “Christmas by Mail Order,” the article suggested 50 ideas for gifts you could order by mail from New England. Among the offerings were authentic Austrian-made lederhosen for $22.50, a solid brass “come-and-get-it bell” for $5.50, and a “lightweight leather ‘fanny pack’” for $10 [below], “designed to hold a cross-country skier’s wax and lunch.” (“It’s also useful for cyclists, hikers, equestrians,” the editors added.) The following month, the magazine recommended the fanny pack as an alternative to the knapsack for skiers. “Get this in Davos,” the writer advised in “Tips for Parsenn Skiers.”
Indeed, the fanny pack had been popular among European skiers for years before it caught on as a money bag for tourists in the ’80s and a drug receptacle for ravers in the ’90s. InStyle’s deputy copy chief, Anne Egli, who hails from Switzerland, says she wore a fanny pack on the Alpine slopes as a kid in the mid-’70s, only they called it a “bauchtasche,” or “stomach bag.” (After all, how many people actually wear fanny packs in the back?) “It was a big upgrade from the worn all-leather rucksack my dad would lug around on our skiing trips,” she recalls. “We always brought our own sandwiches and fruit for lunch, and the sandwiches took on the curved shape of the fanny pack. Snow would sometimes get in through its zipper.”
Despite this design flaw, the bauchtasche would have been an improvement over the older, pre-zipper belt bags spied in Medieval artwork [below]. They were used predominantly because clothing at that time had no attached pockets. Fixed to a belt with a cord, these pouches were typically leather with a flap opening or cloth with a gathered opening. Some varieties like the Scottish sporran, worn over the front of a kilt, were not just utilitarian but also a symbol of wealth and status.
Similarly, the chatelaine purse, which was popular among women in Victorian and Edwardian times and derived from the chatelaines of the Middle Ages, could be quite valuable. According to L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, the most expensive ones had a silver frame and closure. The bag itself was often silk or velvet, sometimes enhanced with appliqué, embroidery, or lace.
Yet the earliest reference I found to the fanny pack was, not surprisingly, described as being for practical purposes. Time magazine’s October 26, 1992, cover story, “Iceman,” reports on the discovery of a frozen 5,300-year-old human body wearing an unlined fur robe under a woven grass cape. Among his accoutrements was “a leather pouch resembling a small version of the ‘fanny packs’ worn by tourists today. Inside he carried a sharpened piece of bone, probably used to make sewing holes in leather, and a flint-stone drill and blade.”
So whether the original fanny pack was invented in the Stone Age to hold tools or in the 1960s to stash frozen ski lunches, it’s an enduring trend that for better or worse doesn’t look as if it’s going away.