Last year I needed a new work bag, and I spent a ridiculously large number of hours searching for a good one online. What should have been a super easy task was surprisingly not, and honestly, I was disappointed by all of the available options.

Like most women, my list was reasonable: I needed a professional-looking tote that would fit my laptop – I travel with it more now that I’m back in school – and my paper planner, maybe some files. I wanted at least one zippered compartment for when I have to carry patient documents or a tampon, and a smaller pocket for my cell phone. I needed something that could handle a walk across the street in the rain or snow. And, I wanted something that could go straight from work to a happy hour (read: not too boring).

I did not want something too big, because I knew I would end up filling it up and then getting back and shoulder pain. I did not need something big enough for lunch –  learned that one the hard way. And, I didn’t want to break the bank in buying this bag, because chances are I would wear it out and need a replacement in a few years.

Before I keep going, let me share about my paper planner, because I love it! Putting everything on my google calendar was making it hard to read, and blurring my line between work and home. I found Golden Coil through an Instagram ad, and they’re fabulous: they offer custom-designed planners from a fairly large number of available templates, which means mine has exactly what I need and nothing that I don’t. It also has lovely inspirational quotations on every page – last week was, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” from Oscar Wilde. I’ve heard good things about Plum Paper and Ink+Volt, too. The amount of internet space dedicated to paper planners is honestly a little scary, but check out these pages for more options:

Fun, functional, feminine

More minimalist options

Anyway, back to the bag. I looked then, and I looked again now in anticipation of this post – and actually found some helpful lists this time around! As best I can tell, functional work bags fall into one of five main types, and I’m sharing my favorites in hopes of saving everyone else the time I spent researching. All the pictures are taken directly from the companies’ respective websites.


The book bag: I have several colleagues who carry one. The benefit is that they are roomy – no trouble fitting a laptop and charger and converter – and that they zip. I also think they are better on the back which matters for walking commuters. On the other hand, I always get nervous about things intentionally or unintentionally going missing, and book bags get very heavy very quickly. In the end, not for me, but I like the tan FABI Backpack from MATT & NAT ($185 – left) and the black Jordan Backpack from MZ Wallace ($385 – right).

The briefcase: I mean, this is basically a fancy laptop bag. I like the look and seriously considered one from Burberry, but, spending that much money on something that might get exposed to bodily fluids just seems like a no-brainer. I also don’t love that there’s not any extra room for my planner or a book. Still, nothing screams “boss” to me like a briefcase, including for example the margaux universal laptop bag from Kate Spade ($328).

The messenger bag: I feel like these were all the rage 10 years ago but are maybe a little less popular now. And yet, in reviewing them, it’s hard to argue with the silhouette, and I do like how they distribute weight evenly across the frame. I also love that many have a top that folds over, great for bad weather! Some are too utilitarian, but some like The Form Bag from Everlane ($235 – left) and the Agnes Satchel Cross Body from Haerfest ($525 – right) are perfect.

The slouchy tote: this style seems to be a favorite. Bags like these have the perks of being roomy, easy to use (I can toss everything right in without wasting time), and comfortable, with the wide shoulder straps. On the other hand, the lack of compartments makes being organized hard, and I think the look is too casual for some days and meetings. If I had to go with one, I would opt for The Medium Transport Tote from Madewell ($185 – left) or the striped Clare V. Simple Tote ($495 on Shopbop – right).

The structured tote:

this is it for me! I love the classy and polished look, and the dividers are key. I also really like that bags like these stand up on their own, and that I can choose from actual color palettes. The only con in my book is that I can’t zip the entire thing closed, which limits outside travel a little bit. I bought the Perry Triple-Compartment Tote from Tory Burch, and I also love The Day Market Tote from Everlane ($175 – left) in blue and the Simone Crossbody Shopper from Nisolo ($158 – right) in this great peach color. Finally, Cuyana has some really wonderful options, in both this category and some of the above ones, too.

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