The Four Acceptable Man Bags

Man with Timbuk2 backpack

By Jeffrey the Barak

In today’s world, men carry as much stuff around as women. This is primarily due to electronics that did not previously exist, but modern men need more personal items as well. The days of stuffing money, identification and keys into trouser pockets and going out the door for a full day, are over.

But unlike women, men should not haul around a purse or handbag, because it just looks wrong.

Luckily the bag and luggage industry is introducing more male gender acceptable carrying devices. However, it is quite apparent that the only four traditional mens’ personal carrying formats that are always socially acceptable are as follows.

  • The Briefcase
  • The Messenger Bag
  • The Backpack
  • The Duffle Bag

Outside of these restraints there are mens’ tote bags, slings, accessory pouches, shoulder bags, tool bags, bucket bags and more, but each have their challenges.

coach-black-bleecker-legacy-business-tote-in-leather-product-1-4858809-0-889550264-normal
Insufficiently Manly?

My Mistake

For example, two years ago I treated myself to an expensive bag, not designer expensive like a two thousand dollar Gucci statement, but a label, specifically a “Coach Mens Bleecker Business Tote”. I used it for two years but often felt that it attracted quizzical looks, and when my wife finally mentioned she didn’t like the look of it, I posted it on eBay and took a $400 price drop.

The specific issue was the handle drop. Even though it was always worn cross body, the additional handles had a long seven inch drop, and that specific feature made it look like a ladies item, despite it being quite large and having mens in it’s name.

Now I should state that I really don’t care, despite the apparent flavor of this article, and if I wanted to walk around in a dress with a ladies purse on my arm or a Barbie (TM) backpack on my back, I would feel fine doing so. But we men have certain responsibilities to society, including wearing pants and apparently, following unspoken rules regarding personal luggage.

And so straying any distance from the four above mentioned categories can be problematic. So let’s go over the manly foursome in a little more detail.

The Briefcase

Manhattan Portage Webb Convertable Briefcase
Manhattan Portage Webb Convertible Briefcase

Briefcases have evolved from rigid hand-held leather boxes into softer items with shoulder or cross body straps, but they are basically thin, and designed for flat things such as documents or laptops, or indeed legal briefs, from which they take their name.

Objects with more of a third dimension, such as power supplies, water bottles, clothing layers, stuffed animals etc., find it a tight squeeze in a briefcase. And this is why some briefcases evolved into Messenger Bags.

The Messenger Bag

Timbuk2 2015 Classic Messenger Bag
Timbuk2 2015 Classic Messenger Bag

Messenger bags were named for bicycle messengers, but also have roots in mail carriers’ bags, satchels, and military dispatch bags. When worn cross body, for example on the right side of the body with the shoulder strap on the left shoulder, they provide some balance, and can be swung around to access contents without taking the bag off. Bicycle messengers like them for two reasons. Firstly they allow more body heat to escape from their backs than a backpack would, and secondly, they can leave them on and take things out and put things in.

Most cool-looking messengers are polyester or nylon. Once leather comes into the mix, then unless it is thick, heavy, uncomfortable leather, a messenger can start to look less masculine.

Wearing a messenger bag cross body is very important. placing it in on either shoulder and having the bag on the same side will cause serious back issues. When walking far, shorten the strap and swing the bag around to the small of your back, even if you think it looks cool to have it affectionately hammer you in the thigh with each step.

The Backpack

The North Face Resistor Charged Backpack
The North Face Resistor Charged Backpack
A more minimal Jansport Right Pack Backpack
A more minimal JanSport Right Pack Backpack

Backpacks are what the physical therapist tells you to switch to when you go in with a bad back and he or she spots your messenger bag. When worn properly with correctly adjusted straps and a waist strap and chest strap, a good backpack is physically the least harmful way to carry. However if you wear a suit and then use a backpack, you can look a bit silly. In fact, suit wearers can only really get away with briefcases or rolling cabin luggage.

Also, using just one strap of a backpack makes you contort and laterally zig-zag into a spine-numbing mess of pain. So you have to commit to a backpack and wear it correctly.

And this is the main problem with a backpack, you have to take it off and put it down somewhere to easily access the contents, so it fails where messengers succeed.

Backpacks come in various flavors: business, hiking, climbing, student, unstructured, technical etc. It is important to consider ergonomics over style, and ideally that means, ventilation designs on the back pad, thick padded straps, chest stability straps, and waist straps to get the weight onto the hips. And even then you have to put some thought into proper weight distribution, you cannot just place any object anywhere in the bag. For lighter loads a simpler, student style backpack like the above-pictured JanSport is probably fine.

The Duffle Bag

A Typical Nike Duffle Bag
A Typical Nike Duffle Bag

Finally there is the Duffle Bag. These can be leather, or nylon, or canvas, or polyester. They are acceptable in a fashion sense, for men, and can even have big silly product logos on them and be brightly colored. All of this is within the rules. Most have two long-drop handle straps that are fine on a duffle but still a no-no on a tote. (There really is no such thing as a mens’ tote with long drop handles, as I found out). Ideally the duffle should also have a handle on one end so you can carry it vertically down a plane aisle, and very importantly, a shoulder strap with a moveable pad, so it can be worn cross-body as you haul it through the airport terminal and do other things with your hands. This strap needs to be on swivel mounts also or else you get into all kinds of twisty annoyances.

In any case, whichever format you carry, only carry what you need. Less weight means more comfort and fewer problems. If you regularly carry a tiresome amount of weight, and you are not walking over unpaved surfaces, consider using wheeled luggage instead.

Staying within these four manly categories and having short-drop handles and choosing black, gray, brown etc, will keep you out of trouble with society’s fashion police.

Jeffrey the Barak is an obsessive gear flipper and has bought, tried, used and ultimately re-sold an outrageously large number of bags of all sizes and formats, only to keep the collection paired down to three or four at the most.

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