Fanny Packs Forever: The Unlikely Endurance of an Infamous Fashion Accessory
June 3, 2019
You might have seen articles and blog posts in the last couple of years declaring that ‘fanny packs are back!’ The truth is they never went away. Not only that, but they’ve been around a lot longer than you might realize. Let me take you on a quick tour of the history of this much-talked-about accessory, and then we’ll take a look at what’s happening with them now.
Fanny pack, hip sack, waist bag or belt bag?
Someone should decide on a name for these things. There are newer, oversized versions being called waist bags, and in the high fashion world, it’s now a belt bag. To most of us, they are still known as fanny packs. In the UK, the term fanny pack would mean bugger all (nothing). Across the pond, Brits call them bum bags.
Whatever the name, they’ve been around since at least the Stone Age. We know this thanks to the 1991 discovery of the 5,300-year-old “Iceman”, who rocked a primitive belt pouch. This fashion pioneer wore clothing made from six different animal species and 17 different trees and used the belt pouch made from calf leather to carry his fire-making kit.
The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Native Americans all developed their own versions. Look to the Middle Ages (when garments didn’t have pockets) and you will find images and references to belt bags; typically attached by a cord and with a leather flap opening. The Scottish had something called a sporran, which was worn over the front of a kilt and signified wealth and status– not unlike a Gucci belt bag does now.
Fast forward to 1954 when Sports Illustrated was recommending a $10 “lightweight leather fanny pack designed to hold a cross-country skier’s wax and lunch”. (So much for that widespread but false origin story of an Australian named Melba Stone coming up with fanny packs in 1962 after being inspired by kangaroos. Not sure where that came from.) Early fanny packs were also popular with European skiers in the ’70s, when they were called “bauchtasches”.
Back to the future
Fanny packs undeniably reached their zenith of popularity in the ’80s (when I had one, it was called a hip sack). Mostly made of synthetic fabric such as nylon and sporting the day-glow colors of those days, they combined functionality with fashion and were deemed to be totally rad. By the end of the decade, they were everywhere. In 1988 Adweek called them “the hottest item of the year.” A 1989 LA Times article called it the “stylish way to free your hands up.”
The accessory remained popular well into the ’90s and was widely adopted by tourists, therefore falling out of fashion. Soon they had become a pop-culture punchline, like in the Seinfeld episode when Jerry joked: “It looks like your belt is digesting a small animal”. Yet it still wasn’t over for fanny packs. Not with Chanel releasing a $4000 belt bag and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sporting his slick leather version in Vogue magazine, circa ’96 (a photo he recently recreated).
Ridicule and scorn of the accessory continued into the 2000s when Weird Al rapped they’re “White and Nerdy”. Never the less, skate culture and festival-goers kept it going, with an appreciation for the functionality. The iconic streetwear brand Supreme began producing their own version early in their history, and at some point, skaters began wearing them across their chest like a bandolier, rather than on their hips– a trend that has been resurrected today with the “cross-body bag”. But for most people, they were no longer cool– a tacky trend leftover from the previous decade.
Don’t call it a comeback
Now, over 20 years later, they’re back in a big way. Or I should say, totally rad again. In fact, they’re so popular they made up 25% of the accessory market in 2018. We can attribute some of it to 90s nostalgia, but also to convenience: people have more stuff to carry around than ever before. Top it off with Paris runways, A-list celebrities, and you have a trend. The latest versions have extra compartments and added versatility, converting from belt bags to shoulder bags or cross-body bags. With festival season in full swing, major fashion magazines are telling us all that we need one.
If you’re looking to create some customized fanny packs to use as a promotional product or giveaway, expect to pay around $4 to $8 a piece, depending on the quality of the product, the print method, and the quantity of the order. The cheapest kinds are typically made of synthetic fabrics.
If you’re looking for something a little more high-end to merchandise, they will cost around $10 to $15 and up. For customizing these, I would highly recommend embroidery. The highest quality versions are made of leather, with fancy hardware like YKK zippers and various pockets (for keeping all the money needed for expensive accessories).
If you want a simple and affordable option that is designed for decorating, go with something like the Canvas Belt Bag by Comfort Colors. 100% cotton with antique brass zipper, adjustable webbing belt strap, and plastic buckle. They have a nice big print area, the material is cotton, the construction is durable, and with no parts that will melt under heat.
These would look great with a small embroidered logo, a single-color screen print or rubber appliqué. Keep the design small and simple to ensure people will actually wear it out around town. And the colors are muted enough to work well with any outfit. I know for a fact these work well because I ordered a couple of them to do example customizations for this article. Keep reading to see the result.
How to customize fanny packs
The first thing to consider when decorating these is their print area. For embroidery, it should be large enough to secure and lay flat in the hoop that is required. While there are very small hoops offered by some manufacturers, the majority of shops will not have them and would need to special order them, delaying a job. Speaking of the hoop, your fanny pack of choice should not have any extraneous parts that would get in the way of the hoop being secured, such as zippers, pockets, buckles, buttons, straps, etc. that could get in the way.
Another thing to consider is the opening will need to be big enough to allow access for the bobbin arm to be inserted. A bobbin arm is the part of the embroidery machine that has an arm or cylinder that the hook and bobbin are mounted in. It allows the use of special frames for embroidering caps, socks, inside pockets– or fanny packs. The cylinder-shaped arm allows the goods to be curved around it for the embroidery magic to happen.
If we’re talking about screen printing or vinyl, you run into a similar issue: the bag should be able to secure onto a special platen (for printing) or a special heat press (for vinyl), with a large enough print area without any obstructions– including seams, textures, or odd angles in the structure. Anything that could get in the way of the print area could make the job difficult if not impossible.
But wait– there’s more.
You also need to be careful about the materials. Avoid anything overly plastic– especially polypropylene. This material will start melting at 300 degrees, so putting it under a strong heat press or sending it through a normal dryer (or even a flash dryer) is out of the question. I’m not sure why they make anything out of this stuff. Other blended synthetic fabrics can be problematic as well. A heat press can permanently change the shape of the bag, or the surface texture can become shiny in the part that was pressed.
Bottom line: Since there are so many styles of fanny packs, you want to be particularly careful in selecting one made with appropriate material that will allow for customization– and doesn’t make you want to tear all your hair out when you do it.
When I first checked in with our fabulous embroidery manager Letitia Lewis to ask about customizing fanny packs, I brought her two different style bags. Unfortunately, neither of them would work, because of their small print areas. She said if she really tried she could get it to work, but it would be a big pain in the fanny with no guarantee of success, and a nightmare to do a large run. So back they went. This is a good lesson: order a couple samples before making a big purchase.
Here are the finished products: two different embroideries on the Comfort Colors bags that I recommended earlier. One of them is a standard, centered embroidery of our colorful Printfly logo. The other is a special, off-center ultra-puff embroidery of our RushOrderTees logo, using a subtle color that goes with the bag style. Both of these were fairly simple to achieve.
Knowing your audience
When deciding on this product and choosing the style, know your audience: if you’re promoting to the younger, festival-going set, the fashion-conscious, or the active/outdoor set, chances are they’ll be into fanny packs, but each group might prefer different styles. Also, consider what the usage will be. Some trades or occupations might be especially suited to need these for work. And if you’re giving away other swag, its a great place to put the rest of it.
Finally, don’t be afraid to do a little market research before investing in a bulk order. Post a poll. Or send a photo of the item to friends or co-workers and get some feedback to find out if it’s a bad idea or a rad idea.
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.