Rut-Busters: Inching Toward Handbag Sophistication

I’ve always loved bags in theory, but not so much in practice.  To me, bags are just like shoes in that we ask them to do a lot of different things for us — some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, a good everyday bag must be:

  • durable enough to carry all the crap we lug around all day,
  • well-organized enough so that we can instantly locate needed items,
  • well-designed enough to distribute the weight so we don’t get neck and shoulder pain, and
  • well-made enough so that it will last when carried daily.

On the other hand, we want this same bag to be:

  • cute & stylish,
  • fun rather than stuffy,
  • professional enough for work,
  • not too plain or boring,
  • but still able to go with everything we own.

Clearly, it’s not possible for one bag to do all of this, every day.

So what do we do?  Buy tons and tons of different bags, trying not to spend too much on each one, and hoping we don’t forget things when we keep switching our daily gear from bag to bag?  Or do we invest in one really good bag, and pray to God that it can take us everywhere we need to go?

Most of us probably fall somewhere between.  And for me, that sometimes means falling right into a style rut.

Since my goal in Rut-Busters is to snap myself out of style ruts with small, strategic changes, the handbag challenge seems like a good one to take on.  So here we go!

The Rut:
Uninspiring, Unprofessional, Unfashionable and/or Unkempt bags

Perhaps my first mistake is trying to use the same bag for work and for my non-work life.  But I’m a practical and frugal kind of person, so I don’t think I should have to change my bag on the weekends, or even for going out to dinner.  I’ll change it for a very dressy occasion, or sometimes just for fun, but I don’t want to be forced to change it constantly.

Unfortunately, my work life makes high demands on a bag.  I have to carry a briefcase, too, loaded down with heavy stuff.  I walk around a lot — across campus, up and down the stairs.  I need something that isn’t too heavy but still holds all my things.  I need one hand free for an umbrella.  Or a cup of coffee.  Coffee is, after all, my most prized accessory.

As far as style goes, what I love best is a casual bag: big & slouchy, cool and leathery, the kind of funky fun tote that you can just throw everything into.  As far as my back and shoulder pain go, however, I can’t do that anymore.  I’ve got to watch how much weight I carry and how it’s distributed.  And besides, the big slouchy bags can be sloppy, too.  Part of me has always been attracted to more ladylike bags, as long as they’re not too stuffy.

For awhile, I tried a leather backpack-style purse, which was great for my back and for the hands-free requirement.  But I got bored with it after awhile.  I got tired of having to undo 10 million zippers anytime I needed to get into the damn thing.  When I’m in that coffee line en route to class, I need to be able to find my cash, pay, grab the change and go — in one swift move.

And to be honest, I never really loved how the little backpack looked.  It was lumpy and awkward.  If I tried to sling it over my shoulder, there were long straps dangling all over the place.  This is not exactly the sleek, seamless, fluid line that I have in the outfits of my dreams.  In the outfits of my dreams, there are no backpacks.

When the backpack suddenly bit the dust, I was forced to make a quick purchase.  So I found a very cheap “fill-in” bag that — I thought — didn’t look nearly as cheap as it was:

I liked the warm brown and the funky silver hardware.  Even the shiny quality was  fun, at first.  Plus I liked the tote style — suddenly I could just throw stuff in the bag again without undoing 15 compartments.  I could sling the bag over my shoulder or, in a pinch, hang it from my forearm (although the straps are a bit long for that).

But the cheapness of the bag eventually caught up with me.  It lost its shape quickly, becoming so floppy that it wouldn’t stand up on a table even when full.  The stitching unravelled.  The synthetic faux leather heated up to forearm-burning temperatures in the summer.  And the straps proved to be unsatisfactory — refusing to stay put, slipping off my shoulder, causing me to look and feel sloppy rather than crisp and professional.

So I’ve been looking for a replacement for awhile.  I knew I needed a practical bag that met my requirements and wasn’t too expensive, but I also wanted to break out of the rut.

The Tryouts

As I started my shopping, I knew I wanted something different.  So I was thinking about:

  • Going for some color, or
  • Trying a new shape or style.

Color would obviously be the most difficult for me, not only because of my well-documented fear of color, but also because color makes it much more difficult to ensure that this bag will go with all of my everyday outfits.  But I was intrigued by the idea.  Ever since young fashionistas started carrying those bright blingy bags everywhere, there have been many enticing colors to choose from.  While I love the bright green seen here:

I worry about blending it with all of the dominant colors in my wardrobe: brown, rust, brick red, orange, burgundy and purple.  Maybe it would go, but it’s too risky for me right now.  (And by the way, what you see in the picture is a paper gift bag, not an actual bag!  Isn’t it adorable, though?  I may break down and buy something like this someday).

So I looked at some bags in burgundy, red, and dark orange, but nothing spoke to me.  As always, I looked at the usual family of browns.  All my shoes are brown.  Brown makes a certain amount of sense, for me.  And while shopping at T.J. Maxx (with a gift card — bonus!), I came across this little number:

Bag by Tignanello

And I thought it was pretty cute!  Now, hold off before you start laughing at me, before you start saying, “Anne, it’s a plain brown handbag!  How can you bust a plain brown rut with another plain brown handbag?”  Yes, I know it’s a plain brown handbag, but in my own defense, this one actually is a bit of a risky stretch for me, and here’s why:

  • It’s more structured, which, in my mind, makes it more of a “lady” bag,
  • It’s a handbag, and not a shoulder bag, so I’m taking a risk in the “hands free” department, and
  • It has those cutely rugged silver buckles and, God help me, even that is a little bit of a stretch for me in an everyday bag.

I picked it up, played around with it, put all my stuff in it to see if it fit (it did, and items were easier to find because they weren’t diving to the bottom of a floppy, bottomless bag).

Plus, it had the hard-core, plastic, store-installed anti-theft device attached to it, which means it was made of real leather and not pleather or vinyleather or what every else they call that synthetic stuff.  Sure, it wasn’t the most expensive bag around (even before it wound up at TJ Maxx), but the quality seemed comparable to the quality of some other more expensive leather bags that I’ve owned before.

And once I looked at the lining, I was kind of hooked:

I’m a sucker for a cute lining.

So I bought it, and away I went.

The Results: How I looked, how I felt, if anybody noticed

I’ve carried the bag for about a week, both at work and on the weekends, and so far so good.  I’ve received exactly one compliment, which won’t set my world on fire, I suppose, but it came from somebody with very good taste.  I’ll take it.

The bag has been easier to carry than I’d feared, because it can be carried either in hand or draped over the arm:

When I carry it with my briefcase at work, it’s not too difficult to switch back and forth between hands, or drape it over the arm, or carry both bag and briefcase in one hand.  I think I look less sloppy and unkempt doing this than I did trying to make that damned floppy shoulder bag stay on my shoulder over heavy coats and layers.

In the coffee line, the metallic closure makes a pleasing “thunk” when I close it.  Plus I don’t scrape my hands on zippers while rummaging around for my wallet.

The bag can perch neatly on top of my briefcase, for easy storage under my desk while teaching:

And as an extra bonus, when I stack my gloves on top of my bag, this tableau makes me ever so happy:

I almost feel a little bit French.

So there you have it:  I am declaring the handbag rut-buster to be a success.

In fact, I’m having so much fun with it, I’m now suddenly enthusiastic about the idea of trying one of my other rut-busting bag ideas in the future.  Maybe for an everyday bag, or maybe for a going out bag.  Color, maybe?  Dare I think it?

Do you have a favorite rut-buster bag?


About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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18 Responses to Rut-Busters: Inching Toward Handbag Sophistication

  1. I can learn a lot from you ….rarely do I put this much process into a purchase…but I think that is a very healthy thing. I think…I want a red bag…and then I go for it. A bag for me has to hold notebooks, pens and cameras for on the spot reporting…so mine are usually big!! If going out for the evening, I might slim down some. What’s great about brown is that it goes with everything…so you are not pressured to change it out much!!

  2. Gail says:

    Your bag is a great choice Anne. I have a very similar one and use it a lot. I wear a lot of black shoes/boots, as well as brown, so I am always looking for a black equivalent to my trusty brown bag. I ignore all the “bag trends” – there’s nothing more annoying than women spending $1,200+ on an “IT” bag, when they can’t really afford it. But I must admit to a bit of an addiction to evening bags. Little glamorous clutches with beads and sequins. I’m always buying them, although I only ever use them on holiday.

  3. MaggieT says:

    That green gift bag SO needs to be a handbag!

    What I do for my day to day toting needs is cart around a practical, quality tote, in which I toss a small handbag that fits the essentials. That way I can leave the huge tote in the car or at my seat in Starbucks and take only the dainty purse into the store or up to the counter. Or when I’m done with my toting needs for the day, I don’t need to do a whole bag switcheroo just to go grocery shopping or whatever.

    • Yeah, that’s a great idea. I’ve tried something like that in the summer, when I’m not schlepping around on foot at work with the briefcase. It works well then. And I love a good tote bag! ALMOST as much as I love that green gift bag. 🙂

  4. Melinda Hobausz says:

    Oh, my. I think I’m in big trouble. I have a bag thing. I have one thing, it is a bag. I love it. It has taken me here and there and everywhere for “a very long time.” I have tried to replace it. I have carried other bags, but I always go back. It is not stylish, nor ladylike, nor attractive, but it is waterproof and washable. It is just very, very practical, particularly for someone who once got to the office only to find the bag completely full of water from a leaky bottle. The bag contained the water and my work papers were not wet. So–I guess I won’t be busting any bag ruts. On the other hand, I do have a cute collection of evening bags that I rarely use. They make me happy even when not in use.

    • Well, you know, bags are like husbands. If you find the perfect one, you don’t have to keep looking.

      Which in no way means that you can’t indulge in a few harmless evening bag fantasies. 🙂

  5. Kathy says:

    I am so different from you… in a good way, of course!
    I change my handbag daily. Yes, daily!! Sometimes, even multiple times during a day. I adore handbags and love to carry them and feature them on my blog. As you can see from its title… Bags, Books & Bon Jovi! My email even has the word “handbag” in it.
    You chose a great bag. I like your tableau, as well :o)

  6. Terri says:

    I went many years and carried no bag. When shopping, I would simply carry my wallet and on work days, a soft briefcase or book bag tended to do the trick. Only last fall, did I break down and purchase a leather (Mark Thompson) backpack/purse thing. I carry it only on weekends. I like it a lot, because it is basically organized for traveling purposes and the dangly straps you complain of can be zipped together.

    I know exactly what you mean about this bag feeling like a “lady” bag, but it IS a very attractive bag. The proof of a good bag is in its usability rather than its appearance in my book.

    • Your bag sounds intriguing — I’ll start looking for it on your blog. Part of me does still like the idea of a backpack, even though I complained about them. I think I just got sick of it and needed a change. I may go back at some point, or carry them on weekends.

      Of course, I like the big, slouchy ones that carry lots of stuff and look like you’re going on safari with Ralph Lauren! You think I can find one of those? 🙂

  7. BigD says:

    I think the bag is really cute.
    I hate big gigant-o bags, because they tend to accumulate stuff I don’t really need to carry around.
    I think you should get a couple of cute scarves you can tie on once in a while for a punch of color and get you out of the rut in a different way.

    • You are so right about large bags accumulating too much stuff. That’s a big issue for me.

      As for the scarf-on-bag idea — I’ve seen others have good results with that, but for some reason I have never felt the look is quite “me.” I don’t know why, though, and these are the kinds of assumptions I’m trying to question. Maybe I should give it a try. I do have a couple of great, smaller scarves that I can’t find any other use for.

  8. GingerR says:

    I saw that same bag someplace last weekend and would have bought it, except then I remembered that I have a bag that same color/style that I bought at a Coach outlet store!

    One of my favorite things is to switch out the wallet, change-purse, checkbook in bright colors or prints so if you look inside the bag, which is kind of easy because it’s open at the top, then you see the colored things.

    I am a sucker for LeSportsSac bags. You get a lot of bag for the money, one of my complaints about high-priced status bags, and they’re lightweight. I’m always checking out the mark-down rack at stores that sell them. A lot of times patterns that aren’t all tha appealing turn out to have colors that look good with different things I have so I overlook the cutsey pattern and buy them!

    • I like your idea about colorful wallets — because I’m always drawn to those, anyway. They’re showing some really cute ones now, for spring. I was browsing yesterday and had to restrain myself. 🙂

  9. Rae says:

    Now that’s a nice bag, very classy. I am a bagaholic, changing bags regularly and then annoyingly my best friend bought me a Miche bag for my birthday and now I have just the one bag. It’s quite clever really, I just change the cover and handles which saves time and losing things in a changeover, but it does mean I can’t really justify buying any more new bags, just the covers! Although I am making my first felt bag soon, so that is a justifiable new bag!

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