Y’all…I’m pretty sure I’ve purchased my last bag for a very, very long time. Years? Maybe. I snagged my current daily go-to, schlep-machine…four months or so ago, and haven’t looked back. That’s saying a lot. In the past six months since I stopped working 100% remotely, I’ve gone through many (too many) bags to find the just right one — for interviewing, for freelancing, for my new (and at the time unknown) job. As someone who lives in the city, gave up driving seven years ago, and has a plethora of aches and pains, a good bag is a must-have. So I searched…and….bought…and…found….and bought…
My search became an obsession and a giant source of frustration. I’d think I’d found the perfect bag, then it wouldn’t fit into the babyseat of my bike. Or…it would hang too low, so that it smacked my thigh as I walked….or, I’d also have to carry a purse, or a second bag for my lunch…or it would be too f-ing heavy once I put my laptop in…ugh…bag after bag after bag I bought….The amount of money I spent on six bags at that time, equals the cost of one good, well-considered bag — at least. And that doesn’t include the purses…
Then…right before a trip in July, when I’d had enough of so many bags, and I wanted a minimalized profile for air travel…I walked into the TUMI store. I figured if I was going to buy a bag, I’d better make it a dang good one. I’d seen enough peeps around here….(ahem, S and Gwen), as well as some family members toting them, that I figured they must be worth the money. I was partially sold when the sales guy told me I could fit my lunch Pyrex (Snapware) in there….then totally sold when he showed me the T-Pass….I could leave my laptop in at airport security….yassss….ding ding ding ding ding!….As a single-mama-traveler and sometime-expat having to prove that my daughter and I could get our sh*t on the conveyor belt just as quickly as any businessman or woman, I’m all about less things to do in the security line.
Why a Good Work Bag Matters
And because my health is vital to my happiness, this is the bag I now carry on the daily: The Tumi Voyageur Ursula with T-Pass. It’s not super-fancy or ultra-feminine, but my goodness it is uber-functional. I love a good bag for the same reasons I love New York City: the perfect combination of function and design. And the TUMI backpack is it. The design is simple, classic and timeless. I can fit everything I need in it on the daily (with the exception of my wellies). It holds its shape: a full bag doesn’t create any unsightly bulges. And let’s face it, I’m pretty much stuck with a backpack to save my back, neck and hips; I mean, I’m an active dudette. Rollerblading fall = shoulder blade injury — check. Yoga headstand attempt = neck injury — check….And for the Philly folks — cycling over trolley tracks = back injury — check. Not to mention birthing a live human being and decimating my torso….These days a good bag makes a difference.
In a fairly new movement referred to as “gender mainstreaming”, researchers are learning (finally!) that women travel throughout a city differently from men (surprise!), specifically when it comes to city dwelling and public transportation. While men generally leave home, go to work and go home — with maybe a stop at the cleaners, the store OR the gym (Raised Hands emoji for the hubbies and fathers who do pick-up and drop-off) — women make multiple stops throughout the day. Because we split our time between work and family-caretaking commitments, we make anywhere from six to nine (or more) stops a day, traversing the city by foot and by rail, on bike and on bus, just to get all the darn things done for all the many people we love. We also do it while pushing strollers or wheelchairs, caring for multiple generations. Whew! Are you already exhausted? If that makes you tired, imagine doing it all with a bag that just isn’t right.
Office, freelance and side-hustling mamas, the bag you schlep all dang day has to make sense. It becomes part of your person, thereby affecting (directly or in-) your health and happiness. It has to increase your marginal benefit, to the extent that it doesn’t contribute to your margin of diminishing returns.
The Best Hardworking Bags for Working Gals
A Hardworking Bag is Good to Find: How We Found Ours
We all fall in love with the design of a beautiful bag every now and again, but save the lust for dates, holidays and weekends. This is about the bag you need day-in and day-out. I asked you on Facebook, and we got TONS of responses, some as thorough as this one:
“My ideal is to have only one bag to carry, so I’ve compromised on this list when choosing bags in the past but: Large enough to hold a 15” laptop (laptop sleeve is ideal), lunch, and other misc work/commute extras (notebook, Kindle for reading, small knitting project bag, umbrella — used to have to be big enough to hold an additional smaller insulated bag for transporting breast milk, but that is no longer an issue). Easily accessible pocket(s) for metro card and/or phone. Exterior water bottle/coffee cup pocket. Interior pockets for some organization of pens, cables, etc., is a nice to have. Comfortable to schlep around.” – Elizabeth.
Many — especially those of us traveling on foot, by bus or by train — want a unicorn bag — the one that does it all. I’m one of those people, and my research for this post focused on the biggest and best contenders. There’s enough room in almost all of these for at least a 13″ laptop (for one very cool bucket bag we can only confirm 12″, based on one review). There are a whole host of other wants and needs from our readers that influenced my shopping. We’ve done all the work for you, and here’s a brief summary of what we considered for this ginormous round-up:
wide-open space. pockets. compartments. zip pockets. easy-access pockets. water bottle. umbrella. metro card. phone. wallet. laptop accessibility & protection. gym shoes. notebook. waterproof lining. bright- or light-colored lining. clutch for meetings or a little bag for breast milk. key leash — I can never get those b*tches when I need them—…shoulder straps. handles. crossbody. coat fit. shoulders slide. hands-free. versatility. weight. length. RFID lining. zippers. a latch. potential spilling during the commute. pickpockets. leather. canvas. nylon. hot & sweaty commute. neoprene. washable. vegan leather. man-made leather. bonded leather. waterproof. water-resistant.
There are also the special specific details: little feet on the bottom, transition from day to night, lunch situation. What women really want from a bag, is a lot.
44 Chic, Functional Bags for Working Women
1. If You Want One Do-It-All Bag…
If you have a crapload of stuff to cart around, love being hands-free, and/or have back, neck or shoulder problems, the backpack is your best bet. Grab an umbrella, a cup of coffee, carry your kid (or their bag), pull a scooter along or hop on a bike…all while toting your gear.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t has to be hands-free, so either a backpack or a cross-body, big enough to fit a small laptop but not so large that I can’t find anything. It needs at least one interior pocket for quick access to earphones, a phone and lipstick. High quality, soft, buttery leather and a clean, modern shape are pluses. Also, it should close securely so as to be safe to wear on public transportation.” – Nicole
Perfect for schlepping all the work/life gear throughout the day, travel bags are a great option. For those of you seeking a large crossbody and/or traveling frequently enough that you don’t want to transfer all the work stuff for every trip, this is a win-win.
*The O.G. and the O.M.G — THIS. This bag is definitely worth a mention. It’s elegant. It has a separate pocket for your shoes (gym rats, overnighters). BUT — it’s a shoulder bag or messenger bag only. The makers apparently also studied how women travel and commute prior to creating these. Watch the video or check out the chart of women of different heights wearing the bag.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] need a bag that I can easily switch to a crossbody when carrying my shopping. It also needs to have an internal zip pocket for my rather long wallet. It needs to be big enough to carry a wallet, phone, small cosmetic bag, and water bottle/umbrella. My favorite bag right now is a Cole Haan with a shoulder strap and a crossbody strap. It is a must for me for city living. I don’t like backpacks in the city. It’s too easy for pick pockets, and I hate wearing a backpack in front.” – Janda
2. If You Love Pockets, Zippers and Sections, Oh My!
Organized Tote Bags
Totes have all the love that a backpack gives — lots of compartments and pockets, and often multiple ways to carry, assuming they won’t aggravate your back, neck or shoulders. They’re a great alternative if you’re concerned with the thievery that might ensue with a backpack. One note on my selections below: I cannot get down with a tote bag that has no pockets and costs more than $1,000; if I’m paying that much for a tote, it better have compartments…just sayin’.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]arge tote with exterior pocket(s) for my subway card, phone, headphones and lip balm; Need 1-3 interior pockets for organization and a key fob. Light fabric with strong handles and water resistant but still stylish enough to take out for plans after work or a meeting. Feet at the bottom for when you have to put it down. Straps must fit over a winter coat. If you can fit my packed lunch, an umbrella and a change of shoes, even better. Yes, I live in NYC. Lol.” – Tina
3. If You Need All Sleek, All Day…
Briefcases, Portfolio Bags & Laptop Bags
If you’re an office mom, a boardroom mom or a courtroom mom, or are in any way playing the corporate game day-in and day-out. OR if you just need a bag you can use for interviewing and meetings, and don’t have a lot of extra cargo, these are the bags for you. Nothing bulky or bulging, just all sleek, all day.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] don’t want to change bags daily, so it needs to work with pretty much everything I’d ever wear to work. Ideally it holds a laptop and a shit ton of papers, my water bottle and pencil case, and has easy to access places for keys and phone. Crossbody strap for when I’m forced to carry it while trying to use my hands. Leather. Pretty. Evidently, it’s also made of unicorns.” – Kimberly
4. If You KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)…
Open Tote Bags: Market Totes & Shoppers
Shoppers are great if you don’t need your bag to be uber-multifunctional. If I had only one place to go in addition to drop-off, and needed only my laptop and necessities, this is the bag I’d use. I have an FCUK shopper that is slim, classy, buttery soft, and doesn’t slide off. The drop from the top of the shoulder to the top of the bag is perfect. The little pocket right inside keeps my phone under my upper arm, meaning it’s easy to grab.
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]nough shape that when I set it down things don’t fall out, and deep enough that someone can’t lift my wallet, but not so deep that everything is lost. Also, I like an outside pocket for my phone. And one that stays on my shoulder. Must be nice soft leather, but not break the bank.” – Kathleen
We’re now looking at the adult version of the Banana Republic messenger bag I carried all throughout college — when all I needed were some pens, a planner, the daily crossword, and my notebooks. Of course, these all fit a laptop and won’t make you look like you just rolled out of bed after a kegger.
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ands-free is a must for me, so I always carry a crossbody or backpack. It also needs to have a zipper or other secure closure. It needs to be big enough to fit my wallet and phone and a few essentials (ear buds, chapstick, a small pack of tissues, etc), but can’t be huge or too heavy.” – Anna
Choosing the Right Work Bag
It took me a long time to get thoughtful about my day bag. That’s why I went through at least six in less than six months. But once I got thoughtful, I made the right purchase. I mean….I actually went home and thought about that TUMI backpack overnight — a whole 24-hour period before finally buying it — ha! And to me, it was worth the extra $75 to get the T-PASS and whatever more space it offered than the Voyageur — I mean, I didn’t want to be buying another bag anytime soon…and now I don’t have to.
There’s some interesting advice out there on buying bags for work: One piece I like from Woman’s Day is that autumn is the best season to buy your bag. Warm neutrals go a long way (eh, year-round) when it comes to the bag you’ll be toting daily. “Fall generally has the most well-designed bags with beautiful hardware and great details and options,” says celebrity stylist Robert Verdi. One I’m not so sure about is to take a cue from your boss. This is a tough one for women. This is one of those career rules we have to learn that men do naturally. It follows the adage to dress for your next position. Do with that what you will. My favorite piece of advice from that (old) slideshow: Don’t neglect your personal style.
We’d love to hear what bags you carry for your full-on day — let us know below. And if you choose one from our round-up, we want to hear about how you made your choice. Happy Shopping!
My bag is from lug (luglife.com). They make the best bags that can carry tons of stuff but not look huge and silly. I’ve had it for over 2 years and still very happy with it.
Those are super-cute! We will have to check those out for our next bag post. Thanks for the tip, Sarah! xo
What a great article. Two years ago or so I bought a Vera Bradley bag, just purple quilted and it was okay. Just not big enough. Then I needed a backpack for work travel and I almost bought a Tumi at the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale. But, instead, I went to Lululemon (I don’t wear their clothes) and bought a backpack there. It has a laptop sleeve, great compartments, it’s light… I loved it and can’t wait to travel again. BUT, I wish I had this article 4 months ago! That’s okay… now I know where to go when I need some variety. 🙂 Thank you!!
Isn’t the process of finding the right bag, so interesting! I finally decided to try Vera Bradley a few years ago, and have a travel duffle I love for that purpose — but I couldn’t use it day-to-day. I hope this post comes in handy next time! Thank for the love. xo
THANK YOU! I have also been on a similar personal hunt for a bag that works. Although I do not work in NYC, I am very mobile and need my hands free. I ended up with a Knomo bag, a slightly less expensive canvas backpack. It has held up beautifully and it is feminine and sleek,while also holding everything I need. I get compliments on it almost daily.
One of my biggest desires was for it to comfortably hold my outdated, oversized and heavy work laptop along with other files and not look like I was going camping for the weekend.
This is the one I have, however in cream canvas and black leather bottom/straps. https://knomo.com/products/harewood-laptop-tote-backpack-119-413-blk
Oooohhh…That looks like a very cool bag, Marci! Thanks for sharing. We’ll try to include that in our next work bag roundup! xo
Could you please remind me of the Tumi backpack model that S wore to Europe this summer? I remember looking at it and want to add it to my Christmas list. Also, I currently have a Knomo bag and it is awesome – just not a backpack, which is what I really need for all of my business travel. Thanks!
Hi Sarah! That’s the Carson Voyageur: https://rstyle.me/n/dakt2acc3a7. It’s a bit smaller than the Ursula, and doesn’t have the T-Pass — S actually meant to get the one I have. She now has the Aer Fit 2 (featured above). Good luck with your wish list :-). xo
Wenjie on Amazon – best backpack on a budget.
Thanks for the tip, Jennifer!Those do look cool. xo
Great article! You accurately and thoughtfully captured the mental process I’ve been going through for years. Kudos for finding a bag that works for you and your life.
Thanks for the love, Allyn! xo
Wonderful article! I finally found my unicorn bag after reading Shana rave about it here: the Tumi Voyager Carson backpack. It holds a ton: lunch, laptop, books, cords, sunnies, water, but doesn’t look over-stuffed or feel heavy. I’d never spent so much on a bag before, but every day my back is happy, and I even get compliments on my bag (never happened with my old Patagonia backpack). 100% worth figuring out what you need and then spending the money on it.
Awesome, Elizabeth! It makes such a difference to carry a bag that improves your daily life. Definitely worth the time and money. xo
Alexis, I just love your articles! they are so well researched, thoughtful and useful 🙂 I need a new bag pronto. This article helped me think about what’s important before I drop some serious cash on a new bag. thank you.
I really appreciate your sentiments, Stephanie. Thank you. Best of luck with your search. xo
I love my TUMI. I went through your process two years ago to find it, returning lots of bags. Eventually I found a TUMI from a previous season (on major sale) that worked perfectly. For me I look for the bag it’s self to be LIGHT because I always have a big stainless steel bottle of water with me. That usually translates to nylon instead of leather. The one from my season was described as ballistic nylon and it is perfect, it holds it’s structure and takes a beating. But the leather details keep it from looking too casual. My only complaint about TUMI is that the zipper is kind of scratchy when you reach your hand in and out all day.