By Jeffrey the Barak
Most men need a man bag despite some negative reactions from others. Until recently, it was difficult for men to be able to comfortably walk around in public with a nice bag for all of their stuff.
But just like women, who need purses and handbags of various sizes to bring along all they need to look fabulous and stay fresh, today’s man also has a few things that he really should bring along everywhere.
I remember in decades past, the only way you could really get away with it without being heckled at by drunken homophobic bullies was to use a gym bag or some form of tool bag, or a manly briefcase, or of course the eternal student backpack. Anything that looked like it could have been designed for a woman was dangerous territory.
But that is changing. Most designers of bags now have a mens collection, and while some of these items look like they might have been designed for the ladies and moved into the mens collection, it is getting easier to get away with having a nice bag and remaining unthreatened on the streets.
Certain Asian nations such as Singapore are way ahead, with the majority of younger men carrying some form of small luggage, varying from a ladylike purse to a big travel bag. And Singaporeans are just like everyone else in the world when it comes to the percentage of gay people in the population, meaning the majority of these guys are as straight as your plumber. They just have less hang-ups about the stereotype of bag carrying and obviously they are more comfortable with their gender image than say, the men of Houston, Denver or Charlotte.
Now that men have needs beyond a bunch of keys and a bankroll, and now that we live in a world where the average guy carries a smartphone, a tablet, a laptops, credit card bundles, eyeglasses, and a small array of personal healthcare items and grooming products, there is simply too much stuff to shove down the front pockets of your 501s.
So whether you walk around in shorts, jeans or a suit, there are many choices of appropriate hand or shoulder luggage to help to have what you need right at your side, instead of back at home. Some solutions cost thousands, and others cost ten bucks.
But what about this guy?
Lets start with the most problematic case, the insecure macho homophobe with too much stuff to fit in the pockets of his cargo shorts. This guy is not going to want a red crocodile hide designer tote, however, a canvas tool bag, a stonemasons bag or a medium to large cross-body nylon messenger bag should not raise the eyebrows of his bar-fighting buddies too much.
A duffle bag with some kind of boxing equipment logo or a soccer team crest would also pass muster among the insecure and self-conscious men of the world. And of course there is always a college backpack, even if you never actually wear it on your back with both straps.
And if his friends are even more dangerous, he can always turn to a cement-stained bucket with a lid.
Now that we have the problem bag carriers out of the way, what about the modern men, straight or gay, who don’t care if some caveman thinks any bag they carry is akin to a pink fluffy clutch, and just want something that looks and feels and smells and performs in such a way that gives them objective pleasure as well as carrying function.
Today’s choices are vast and varied. Sizes and styles are expanding, and some categories of day luggage that were previously exclusively in the women’s domain are very much at home in the mens collections.
Lets get Listy
General categories, although there is some crossover, include:
- Travel Bags, including Duffles, Carry-Alls, Cabin Bags
- Cross-Body Messengers
- Shoulder Bags
- Utility Bags
- Map Bags and Field Bags
- Hand Bags (not handbags)
- Belt Bags
The predominant new trend in menswear accessories is the tote bag. All the main designers feature new mens totes.
A tote is usually a large and tall bag, either soft or stiffly structured, and usually made from canvas or leather. Some are open at the top, and some have zippers for security. There is no top flap, but the top of the tote may sometimes fold over when closed. There are usually pockets inside and out, as well as one large central space for many small, or one or two large items. Some have cross-body shoulder straps, and others require you to hold the bag in one hand, counterbalancing your walk with a sway, and lifting the arm when on stairs. Most totes have handles with a longer drop that can be placed over the shoulder so the bag tacks against the ribs, but this method of carrying can look a bit un-masculine. A separate shoulder strap is the important addition that makes an otherwise unwieldy tote a pleasure to carry.
For a dollar or two, you can carry your gear in a grocery checkout tote, and for twenty grand you can caress half an alligator, but a medium-weight soft leather is probably the nicest material for this large yet practical every-day bag. Even when mostly empty, they can be efficient if you organize your small objects into smaller containers, pouches, sleeves etc. A great advantage to a tote is if you start the day wearing a jacket, but then it gets hot later on, there is usually room for that jacket inside the tote.
The key to avoiding a womanly tote is to look for straight vertical sides and thicker handles. Very thin handles with a long drop are dainty and also do not spread the weight comfortably. This is just as important for the shoulder strap, if included. Even if a strap features a shoulder pad, the strap itself needs to be either thick or flat and wide.
Travel Bags, including Duffels, Carry-Alls, Cabin Bags
Even larger than a tote is a full on overhead-bin sized duffle. Bags in this category are wider and so when hand carrying one you will find it grazes the leg. They tend to be very heavy when loaded so they are no fun to carry in one hand or on the same shoulder as the side your bag is on, and a cross-body shoulder strap can be a life saver. If you find you always have a very heavy, full travel bag, then perhaps an international-flight-sized (45 linear inches), wheeled suitcase carry on would make more sense, assuming you don’t cross plowed fields etc.
Men have always been able to use a briefcase as a man bag. Most are rigid, as they are designed to protect papers in unfolded condition, and most are lacking in front-to-back depth. Many deeper briefcases have two or three gussets and internal dividers so they are not practical for single large objects. You need to organize your stuff flatly to take advantage of the interior shape. A briefcase is not meant to be wrapped around your side and so will always be a rigid rectangle, even if you wear it cross-body.
In the summer, when you are near the beach, a formal briefcase looks a bit strange, but in the city, with clothes, it is always a good look for a man bag.
Cross Body Messengers
Originally a military design, these bags are used by bicycle couriers and are possibly the most popular man bag after the backpack. No surprise there because a messenger is extremely versatile in any situation, and is a good format for a laptop.
Depending on size, the messenger has different functions. A larger one will fit some clothing or shoes along with your daily essentials, while a smaller one can be a neat way to carry your essentials hands-free and in balance. Most have a long front flap that covers the front of the bag. If it is a leather messenger, this flap really adds weight, and since you probably don’t have it on your back while riding a bike in the rain, it is functionally superfluous.
Many messengers lack a top handle, which means you cannot easily carry them in your hand. And if they do have the handy handle, it requires you to clip, button or stick the flap closed in order suspend the bag in balance.
Usually smaller than messengers, shoulder bags are difficult for a man to wear well these days. A shoulder bag, as listed here, is usually a rounded square or rectangle with lots of zippers and compartments. European man bags or “murses” from the Eighties dominate the category, and most designs are dated to the point that they more often than not have spaces designed for the candy-bar non-smart phones of yesteryear. When a comedy movie or TV series wants to get a laugh out of man bags, this is to go-to design for the jibe to be effective.
Larger shoulder bags, such as the iconic vinyl PanAm airplane bag from the Sixties are also lacking in the comfortable cool factor despite their attempted revival by Superdry. But there are some handsome variations, often named commuter bags.
We have already noted that backpacks incite little trouble for the male wearer, but they can be inconvenient because you have to take them off your back to access anything. Also people can come from behind and quietly steal from the bag. Museums and pottery stores usually ask you to take them off and carry them in hand so you don’t turn and bump it into valuable objects. If you ever step backwards with a backpack on, or turn suddenly, you will sooner or later impact upon another individual or object.
The backpack is in a class of its own, but it should also be included in any discussion of man bags. If going for a leather backpack, avoid thin straps at any cost. If your backpack has spaghetti straps, not only will it hurt, but it is probably not designed to be a man bag.
Satchels are usually a boxy shape with ridged corners. Most are made of a stiffer more rigid material like a briefcase, but they can also be soft and floppy. Larger laptops are usually too big for a satchel. A traditional satchel is stiff leather with a top flap and one or two buckles for closure. They can often be worn like a backpack, or as a shoulder or cross-body bag. Women’s satchels (another definition of the same name) are often very soft and unstructured, whereas unisex or mens satchels are always stiffer.
Of course some people use the terms satchel and shoulder bag interchangeably and envision different visions of what each should look like.
Picture a bag with a strong bottom and many open-topped pockets inside and also perhaps outside the main compartment. A belting-leather tool bag, a canvas tool bag and also a fine leather man bag can be in this category. If the bag tips, items can fall out but they are usually bottom heavy, and are great for top-loading and organizing individual objects for a quick withdrawal.
Map Bags and Field Bags
If your map bag is in military olive drab canvas, then you can disguise the fact that it looks like a ladies purse. Once the material changes, a small map bag or field bag looks like a ladies bag even if it is in the mens department. These little bags are quite a handy size for use as a day bag, being just the right size to take what might have been in your pockets, but they are such a challenge, unless you really don’t care if they look like a man bag or not.
Yes they are employed by the hunting and fishing community and used for fishing lures and shotgun shells, but they are essentially the right size to be mistaken for a ladies bag.
Let’s mention a language problem here. In Europe, all ladies purses are called handbags (one word) and a purse in Europe is what Americans call a wallet. Such are the variances in the English language. In this discussion, a hand bag (two words) is a strapless bag that we would hold in one hand, with or without a retaining wrist strap. In the ladies world, this could be called a clutch.
Men use hand bags for quick access to items such as keys, passports, tickets, phone, money etc. and often they are placed inside another larger bag, such as a tote as an organizational tool.
Here again, it is a challenge to make a hand bag look manly, but they are very handy (pun intended) and they serve well to keep lumpy and sharp things out of your pants pockets. Clearly if it is pink patent leather with a giant gold buckle, it is probably intended to be a ladies hand bag for lipstick etc., but in black leather and without embellishment it looks okay in a man’s hand.
Guys with jeans and belts often attach various pouches to those belts, You see them custom designed for what they carry, just like the items police have on their duty belts. Pouches for phones, sunglasses, Swiss Army knives etc. are common, especially among motorcyclists who don’t have that awkward conflict between belt bags and car seats. Larger belt bags can be multi-use, with a fairly large compartment. Worn at the back they are often called fanny packs in the Americas, but not in England of course where the word fanny does not mean your butt. (In British English, fanny is a word for vagina).
If you select any kind of belt bag, you are not much further forward from having things in your pockets, unless your name is Batman, but a belt bag is definitely one form of man bag, albeit useless when you put on your overcoat.
Worn cross body, with the actual bag on the chest, a sling is a handy way for the man to carry a few essentials hands-free and with empty pockets. Due to the sling’s position on the body, you cannot easily look into the bag while you are wearing it, and they don’t exactly compliment a suit and tie very well, but a sling is a handy man bag for some occasions and situations, and no-one can sneak a hand in without you seeing it.
In today’s big cities, men and women with a lot to carry from public transport to office etc., are turning to luggage as an alternative to a large bag that needs to be worn or carried. The international carryon standard of 45 linear inches is a popular choice, and it may have two skate wheels at the back like a TravelPro, or four casters like a Samsonite Spinner.
In American English, any container of possessions is called a bag, even if it is made of metal and has wheels, so it has to be mentioned in our list of man bags, just because so many city dwellers are now using them to keep the weight off their shoulders.
How You Wear It
Almost any bag can look like a man bag if you hold yourself with pride, take charge of the bag and walk like you know where you are going. But if you wear your bag on the crook of your elbow or below the armpit, and mince along from shoe store window to shoe store window with a miniature poodle on a leash, even a dusty tool tote with a hammer-drill sticking out the top will take on the appearance of a purse.
So it is as much about attitude as it is about size, shape and materials. Wear your bag like a man, look like a man.
Personally I could not care less if people think I am gay. Gay people are very cool. I happen to have been born as a male with the straight inclination, but if I saw a 100% woman’s bag that I really liked I would just use it and not care. Many of my past bags have been at the very least unisex, and probably mostly purchased by females. But I understand that man bags are still a new thing for many, and some men worry about how much less masculine they might appear if they could only get the junk out of their pockets.
Currently I employ a black Coach Bleecker Legacy Business Tote. It is in their mens line, but I think a lot of women also buy them, just because they are so cool. In the past I have bought and re-sold (or donated) many a man-bag, including Saddleback Leather items that were super cool, but a bit too heavy, and many a polyester or nylon messenger. I must have been through dozens of bags, but I alway regret going out without one and I try to never put anything in my pockets.
As more and more men take a bag out with them every day, the stigma should diminish, and men will be more comfortable using some of the very practical new categories of man bag out there. I mean, once you’ve toted a tote, you will really miss having a tote to tote.
Jeffrey the Barak is the bag consultant for Lumpy the Sardine, who rules the undersea kingdom South of Hawai’i.