Professional Women Ask:  Can a Tote Bag Really Replace the Briefcase?

Finding the right handbag for the workplace has long been a challenge. Women want a bag that meets our professional needs--- and projects a professional image--- but we don’t want to leave our femininity at home. And if possible, we’d also like to carry only one bag---a bag that will take us from the office, to the courtroom, to after work cocktails and to the PTA meeting. In other words, we want a purse that not only works as a purse but that can double duty as a briefcase. Is that doable?

When we started practicing law, a briefcase was de rigueur. Moreover, briefcases were designed with men in mind, and they were usually square and hard sided. The Coach soft sided briefcase was an exception to the rule, and we both carried and loved our Coach briefcases. But they were decidedly not feminine. As Jeena Cho, of Lawyerist, has said, “Back then, I wanted a bag that will help me blend in and having a bag that looked similar to the one my male counterpart was carrying helped me feel more comfortable.” 

But she also observed, in a sentiment we share, that as she became more comfortable in her role as a lawyer, bringing more of herself into the workplace, including what she wore and what she carried, became important. (vintage Hartman, Hanner Clarke’s Dee, vintage Coach)

But how far can you carry that concept? And what does it mean when it comes to replacing a briefcase with something decidedly more feminine? Cho quotes Kat Griffin, EIC of Corporette, who says “What you end up wearing and carrying---they ALL reflect on your professionalism. If its dowdy and frumpy, you look out of touch with the modern world. If it’s too sexy or feminine, it may suggest that you’re dressing for your social life rather than your working life.” Griffin is right. How we dress, and the bag(s) we carry, reflect positively, or otherwise, on our professional image.

So can professional women shelve the traditional briefcase in favor of a more fashionable tote bag? Yes and no. We love our L.L. Bean canvas tote bags for the beach but wouldn’t dream of carrying them into court, no more than we would carry Givenchy’s Antigona Bambi print tote into a board meeting. Most totes, it seems, are not designed with the professional woman in mind, and many women, accordingly, still opt to carry men’s briefcases. (For those women, we find that Tumi has a nice selection of functional briefcases). But we believe a well made tote can readily substitute for a brief case and yet work as an attractive after hours purse, if it is the right kind of tote.

What should a professional woman look for when choosing a tote over a briefcase? She should search for a tote that is classic, elegant, and functional. The tote must be large enough to hold the items she needs ---her laptop, files, cosmetic bag, etc.,--- but not so large that it looks like its weighing her down. It should have straps that are long enough that she can reach into the tote while it is on her shoulder, even when wearing a coat. It should stand on its own, without slouching, when it is placed on the floor or a table. It should be stylish enough to carry after hours, as many women go from the job to afterwork activities to home and want a bag that will transition with them from day to evening. Simply put, the professional, yet fashionable, woman needs a tote that is practical and attractive, elegant and functional, if it is to move with her in and out of the workplace.   We think our new to the market Dee tote fits that description well, and we hope you agree, but for other suggestions of older bags, check out Cho’s post (cited above and compiled before our bags were on the market). See also The Best Tote Bags for Work, Interviews and More.

Ironically, men, too, may soon be swapping out their briefcases for totes. According to Business Insider, sales for men’s totes were up 11% in 2016. It’s nice to see women taking the lead in this aspect of the professional workplace. Let’s hope that lead continues in more substantive ways.