Men’s Bags: When, Where, and Why

Men’s bags have been around for thousands of years but it’s only been in the last 50 years or so that they’ve seen a revival, and it’s becoming fashionable to carry them again. This is largely due to the increasing number of things we tend to carry around. Whether it’s a new cell phone that’s three times the size of our old flip phones or our work laptops, we have more things and need a stylish way to carry them.

Carrying a bag may also send a subtle psychological message. Dr. Benjamin Wild argues in Parisian Gentleman that carrying a bag is an intentional handicap akin to a peacock’s feathers. (These ostentatious feathers are a functional detriment to the peacock but act as a signal that the peacock is of such fine stock that it has biological resources to spare.) In the case of strapless bags, reducing by half our manual utility could be a signal to others that our resources are such that we can afford to temporarily give up the use of one of our hands. The analogy also works when we consider financial resources instead of biological ones since some bags can cost over $1,000.


Clutch bags are the smallest of the men’s bags on this list. They can be little more than a zippered pouch or they can be more complex — with multiple compartments and places for credit cards, money, cell phones, or anything else that doesn’t fit comfortably in our pockets. When looking for a clutch, choose one in a neutral color and avoid excessive ornamentation or else it will begin to look like a women’s wallet.


Messenger Bag/Satchel

Messenger bags are distinguished by their single strap made to be worn over one shoulder, diagonally across the body. These bags date back to at least the Roman era and have been used by soldiers, messengers, and many other professions. Today’s messenger bags are typically made from either leather or canvas. No matter the material, messenger bags and satchels are on the casual end of the spectrum because of how the strap warps the shape of a jacket or blazer.


The defining characteristic of a backpack is its two shoulder straps. Originally used to help carry heavier loads than could be carried by hand, today’s backpacks are mostly used by students but are more often being made with nicer materials and sleeker profiles. Backpacks are firmly on the casual side of men’s bags since their straps would ruin the look of any suit.


The briefcase most likely rose to prominence in the 19th century when the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, used a red leather briefcase to carry the budget to the House of Commons. That style of briefcase has been used by the British each year since to present their budget. Traditionally a hard-sided, hinged leather box, briefcases today can also be soft-sided. Briefcases are the most formal bag on this list and should be worn with professional attire. For the best look, a briefcase should match our shoes, but dark brown leather is a good choice for everyday use that will match most any outfit.


A tote bag is typically an open-top bag with handles but no shoulder strap. Tote literally means to carry, and if we’re trying to pull this look off while retaining an air of masculinity, that’s exactly what we should do with it. Wearing it on the shoulders will make it look like a purse so this bag should be carried by the handles. Totes can come in many forms, from the 99-cent bags from the local grocery store to the all-leather bags made by high-end designers.


I work in an office, so for daily use a backpack doesn’t work with my shirt and tie. I also find that messenger bags make my shoulder sore and overly distress the blazers I wear to class up my look. I like the look and functionality of clutches, but I worry about misplacing them since they’re small. I would go with either a tote or a briefcase. A tote can carry all of the things I bring to the office with more class than the plastic bags I tend to use (!) and a briefcase is the ultimate accessory to bring to a job interview or meeting where I would need to bring a portfolio or resume.

Far from being just “murses,” men’s bags are available in many sizes and styles. And, depending on the maker, you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $500. Ultimately, the right bag comes down to our daily dress and the things we need to carry.


Resources used in this article