The Best Work Bags For Women, According To Rigorous Testing

The top work bags for women vary from basic totes to laptop carryalls with multiple pockets.

ILLUSTRATION: FORBES / PHOTO: RETAILERS

If you’re carrying a laptop, especially the Signature Dover Dagne pairs Totepairs, with sleek design and protection and security, the best value option that works hard at a great price is the Second Edition Tote Tokyo Bellroy, which is an affordable alternative. After collecting more data and determining that the Tote System Cuyana is the best bag for women overall, thanks to its durable leather and flexible storage. With this in mind, I tested several contenders over a period of two weeks. I packed them to the brim to assess their capacity and weight, checked if the moisture quickly evaporated by spraying water on their exteriors, ran down a full city block to see if the straps remained in place, and slung them over my shoulder.

Here are the winners from my comprehensive testing:

  • Overall, the Cuyana System Tote is the best work bag for women.
  • Top Affordable Work Bag For Women: Bellroy Tokyo Tote Second Edition.
  • Top Work Tote For Ladies: Leatherology Uptown Vertical Tote.
  • Top Laptop Bag: Dagne Dover Signature Tote.
  • The Cuyana Tote System is the favorite of many users and is overall the best bag I have tested. It is a bestseller from the San Francisco-based brand and is made in a leather bag that successfully combines customizable organization with elegant aesthetics.

    It can also be an additional $15 for a monogrammed option. The System Design excelled with its flexible and customizable options, allowing you to insert a tote or laptop sleeve for the right level of storage. When I traveled or carried items that required more sorting, such as lipstick, phone, or passport, I found that I needed a bag that offered a bit of structure without micromanaging where everything should be put. Still, I actually prefer reaching for items in the main cavity rather than checking little compartments, and I’m not consistent with organization pockets. When I began evaluating the market, I thought I would prefer a very structured work bag.

    The System Tote performed exceptionally well with its adaptable design, which can be personalized with organizational inserts.

    Andrea Servert Alonso-Misol For Forbes

    The solution to my limited ability to be completely hands-free was the grip straps, which were uncomfortable. Although one of the handles tended to slide down when I walked a few blocks, it was generally comfortable to carry on my shoulder. The System doesn’t have any zippers, but it securely shuts with snap closures and leather lace. The bag allows me to stand upright on the floor when I’m working at a café or traveling. I liked how I could easily pull up the pocket to get in and out items, and there is also a pocket inside where I can remove my makeup pouch, water bottle, and wallet. I tested the System in its most basic form without any add-ons.

    Although the tag-price was disappointing considering the manufacturing defects encountered by customers, the System bag still felt like the smartest choice for all-purpose work. The bag’s functionality, which didn’t alter despite the problems, can be replaced thanks to the 2-year manufacturing guarantee. Additionally, I noticed some marks on the inside of the bag, but it is easy to maintain and the resilience of the leather adds to its sleek silhouette. Thanks to its fashionable pebbled leather and sloped handles, the System bag also looks-wise is impressive.

    If you need a lot of space, the best option might be the 12-liter compact version of the Tokyo bag. Although opting for a different color might improve the pale tan aspect, the main drawback is that it is the most utilitarian and least fashion-forward of the lot, I would say. In terms of construction and padding strap design, Tokyo was the best bag I tested, and it’s no surprise that Bellroy, a brand that specializes in technical accessories, is behind it.

    I didn’t even notice it at first, but the bag’s length runs discreetly along the exterior, which is a good thing for security. I also liked the two expandable compartments on the sides, where I could store a pair of shoes, an umbrella, and my water bottle. Tokyo Nomads’ digital bag comes with a built-in laptop sleeve that has extra padding to protect devices from impact, which is a bonus. The interior of the bag is structured and has five different pockets inside the main zippered compartment. It’s made of a flexible woven fabric, so it’s not stiff. I threw all my essentials in it, including my 13-inch laptop charger, a light sweater, a snack box, and a notebook, to test its capacity.

    Initially, I didn’t even perceive its presence, the Tokyo Tote features a subtle compartment that spans the entire length of the bag and is ingeniously concealed.

    Andrea Servert Alonso-Misol

    If you’re considering Tokyo, which comes in a lovely Black Melbourne and Navy, the lightest color (Saltbush) should be easier to maintain and require less upkeep. However, when I tested it, I couldn’t remove some marks on dirty surfaces with my all-purpose cleaner, likely due to the material being prone to stains. The bag also picked up marks when resting on the dirty surfaces or when I grabbed a bite on the go. Despite this, I felt that it was best worn with laid-back outfits when running errands or working from a café. I liked the lightweight feel of this recycled fabric bag, as it gave a more casual vibe compared to Cuyana’s rich leather System. While walking around Tokyo, the bag remained comfortably on my shoulder and didn’t jostle, which impressed me. I give credit to the slightly longer straps of this bag, which helped it stay in position. As I walked with Tokyo as my anchor, I tidied up my apartment and sprinted down my block.

    The vertical uptown tote from Leatherology is considered the best work bag option for those who want a minimalist and streamlined bag crafted from gorgeous leather at a great price. This tote is made from refined materials, which allows it to extend its functionality to workspaces. In addition, you can get this trendy brand’s merchandise from the local farmers market, where bags in every shape, often made from canvas or cotton, exist. These bags usually have two handles and a main cavity without a top closure or gusset. They are simple and resilient, and according to Grimm Ulrich, a lecturer at Parsons and a design consultant, they are one of the most effective designs when it comes to totes, as they have ample capacity for holding multiple items.

    When I headed to work, I wanted a more put-together look, so I combined my casual jeans-and-sneakers outfits with a elevated look, which was also made more stylish by the nickel hardware and the leather with inner. As a bonus for messy people like me, stains from makeup and light food easily removed with my all-purpose cleaner. To mimic different weather conditions, I spritzed the surface with water, leaving behind quickly beaded droplets without any stains. Even after putting it through its paces, the stitching on the Uptown bag still looked as good as new and the seams were excellent. Although I officially tested it for only two weeks, it showed signs of aging beautifully. In addition, the leather is very soft to the touch and the Uptown bag is made from full-grain leather.

    The Uptown is crafted from supple, high-quality leather and is expected to develop a beautiful patina as it ages.

    Andrea Servert Alonso-Misol For Forbes

    When I was at the head of the lengthy supermarket lines, I found it especially handy to locate items like my loose wallet or phone keys inside the supple and soft leather exterior of the bag. I also found it easier to leave items like a pack of gum or lipstick inside, as I had to reach down too far to pull them out. Personally, I found them to be deep and slim, truly useful. In addition, there are two bigger compartments inside and a small zippered pocket. I still had enough space to fit an array of testing items, but in terms of storage capacity, Uptown is not as roomy as Tote Tokyo Bellroy or System Cuyana.

    You can’t beat the overall construction and quality of this leather tote, especially for under $200. The Uptown is also comfortable to carry and lightweight, but when placed on other surfaces or the office floor, it didn’t stay upright as it’s a soft-bottomed bag. Some users have criticized Uptown for its lack of closure, which means if the bag flips over, all the items inside naturally fall out, making it vulnerable to being stolen or things tumbling out on a crowded subway.

    First things first, the Dagne Dover Signature Tote is the one that seemingly fits my work lifestyle the best. It makes an excellent companion for those who need something closer to a traditional work shoulder bag rather than a laptop bag or a briefcase. But what makes it truly special is the special protection it offers for computers, like my own, that require that kind of care. Plus, I don’t always need to carry formal items or go to meetings, so it’s perfect for my needs.

    The Signature bag has an extra security measure in the form of a magnetic strap that securely fastens both padded compartments. It also adds an additional layer of protection against accidental impacts when the bag is knocked over a few times. The coated canvas material of the bag enhances this protective layer.

    I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was to place the top-handle bag on my arm, as I walked around Barcelona for a long day. The bag’s design adds rigidity with its gleaming gold-toned hardware and all the compartments it has. The Tokyo Bellroy Tote weighed 1.4 pounds and the Cuyana System Tote weighed 1.9 pounds when empty, while this bag weighed 2.6 pounds. It required me to make decisions in the morning about where to place certain items, but I really love how organized people can be with the 11 pockets within the main compartment of this bag. I strategically placed the rest of my items where they fit neatly in the pocket, including my laptop.

    The Signature bag has been tested far and wide, and it is the most secure bag I have encountered so far. It features a fully padded laptop pocket, a top zippered closure, and an additional layer of protection for the exterior canvas coating.

    Andrea Servert Alonso-Misol for Forbes

    When I wore this bag to brunch with one of my friends, it looked great even in relaxed social situations. It also fit well with most of my office outfits, looking refined and classy. The color of the bag, which is actually a light shade of blush, reminded me of a classic case. I particularly appreciated how quickly I could access my phone with the smooth gliding zippers. During my tests, the bag proved to be waterproof, easy to clean, and durable. The structured body made of coated-canvas added to its durability. However, it is worth noting that the Signature version of the bag is pricier at $255.

    Finding the bag that works best for you depends on your personal taste, aesthetic and lifestyle preferences. I didn’t make the cut on evaluating the bags that might suit your needs better.

    However, the material of the Hobo Oversized Leather Cactus Everlane bag quickly showed signs of wear on the top edge panel, which isn’t seamed. Nonetheless, this bag, being one of my favorites, was light in weight and had ample capacity, thanks to its cactus leather.

    I haven’t decided whether to consider it as a contender, but if light could travel through this, you could be right. The bag was too small to fit the assortment of items I needed to carry inside: Hobo Leather Cactus Everlane.

    The Tote Transport Medium Zip-Top Madewell is a well-rounded bag, although there were some details that could be improved. The other models’ finishes and hardware were not as refined, and the strap of the messenger bag was not too flattering or comfortable. Additionally, the laptop did not fit inside when the top zipper was closed.

    The Tote: Reversible Level Street offered the most affordable option among the $49 bags I tested. While the materials and finish were of lower quality, some features such as the exterior construction, reversible design, and magnetic closure were well constructed.

    Ultimately, it is a more prudent decision to invest in a higher-quality bag, even if it comes at a higher cost, as affirmed by all the experts consulted. Despite being a highly popular model on Amazon and having a remarkably low price of $10, the Dreubea Faux Leather Tote Shoulder Bag did not exhibit the same level of quality as the other bags I tested.

    The price of $545 for this bag, the Small Gavriel Mansur Tote Zip, is remarkably expensive, but it is justified by its unique features and beautiful design. It is truly a bestseller brand without any other options that can compare.

    I didn’t feel like the cost of this popular and highly rated Tory Burch bag, the Triple-Compartment Perry Tote, was attainable, especially since it was on the more expensive end of the scale ($448).

    The Original Longchamp Le Pliage bags were a strong contender in the world of design, as they were ultimately chosen by many other sophisticated organizations.

    The remaining competitors, other than the traditional office settings, are not as well-suited or polished in their design. However, the L.L.Bean Zip-Top Tote and Boat L.L.Bean are considered to be classic choices.

    The Tokyo Tote Bellroy, known as the Deluxe Tote Metro Medium Wallace MZ, stands out for its higher price tag of $275 compared to a regular bag. Moreover, this bag is notably more elevated in terms of its characteristics and offers many compartments, making it quite versatile.

    My favorite backpacks are these, if you’re a fan. However, I have not yet decided whether to include them in this time. I have determined that backpacks for women are a different breed from the most common work bags. However, I have decided not to include them.

    How To Choose the Ideal Work Bag

    After talking with a variety of experts and evaluating many options on the market, I learned that certain features matter most when women are selecting bags for work.

    Capacity

    In the future, potentially a cause of spinal discomfort, and needlessly burdensome, it will also be a bag with excessive capacity that will remain unused. However, do not go to extremes. Select your bag based on that and discern which essential items you require on a daily basis. “I frequently travel for work, for instance, and possessing a bag that can accommodate everything in my world is crucial,” she affirms. Virginia Rolle, a style advisor and the founder of the Big Bag Club based in Milan, has experienced the frustration of investing in bags that were not appropriately proportioned for the demands of her profession. Think pragmatically when contemplating which bag size is suitable for your necessities.

    Material

    The curator of the Amsterdam Purses and Bags Museum, Leonie Sterenborg, emphasizes the importance of the durability and quality of the fabric when choosing between canvas or vegan leather for your daily accessory. She advises spending a bit more to get a bag that will last, and suggests that both canvas and Nylon are good alternatives that can hold up well with proper care. “Leather or vegan leather is the most commonly used material for work bags,” says Sterenborg, “in the sense that they are recognizable immediately and require minimal upkeep to stay clean, ideally waterproof and resistant.”

    Shape

    If you have too many items packed in a bulky tote bag, it will feel uncomfortable and stick out from your body naturally. Ulrich Grimm, a design accessory lecturer and consultant at Parsons School of Design in New York City, advises going for a simple shoulder or handheld bag design if you need to carry more than a few items. When it comes to long days or your regular commute, experts recommend prioritizing comfort and evenly distributing weight, so shoulder and handheld bags tend to be the best options. However, this particular piece from Design of School Parsons didn’t undergo any testing (though all shapes of bags come for this purpose).

    Organization

    Do you like your bag to be? Do you prefer a bag with a larger capacity, where you can transfer your belongings and place them in a small pouch if you need more space? On the other hand, Grimm advocates for simplicity and suggests looking for a bag with one or two outside or inside pockets, rather than compartmentalized ones. She always leans towards buying bags with customizable storage, extra shoulder straps, and internal pockets. As a lover of clutches, she believes that it is important to find a bag that matches your needs and has the features you are looking for. Therefore, it depends on your behavior and work habits on how you prefer the inside of your bag to be – whether you like it unstructured or structured.

    How I Evaluated the Top Work Bags

    I researched factors such as price, colors, materials, capacity, and size, and read hundreds of reviews on bags in order to make a fair comparison between similarly sized bags. I also considered technical features like the ability to securely stay closed while remaining easily accessible and protection for laptop storage. The work is determined by the needed items, with a depth of 5.5 inches and a height of 3.5 inches, and a width of 15.5 inches and 10 inches.

    I narrowed down my list of contenders by testing seven bags daily for two weeks, evaluating the following criteria on each basis.

    Once the bag was completely filled and its durability was confirmed, I proceeded to assess the arrangement and placement of the various items inside. To conduct this evaluation, I utilized a predetermined selection of items including a 13-inch laptop, a notebook measuring 6 x 9 inches, an iPhone 11, a wallet, keys, a pen, a 16.9-ounce stainless steel water bottle, a snack box, a lightweight sweater, a laptop charger, an earphone case, a glasses case, and a makeup pouch.

    I sprinted a whole city block in my Barcelona neighborhood with the bag after it slipped off my shoulder or any of its contents fell out. In order to replicate the real-life situation of having to hurry to catch a train, bus, or plane, I also shut the bag and flipped it over to check if any items would spill out. Since this required various quick movements, such as bending down, reaching up high, and turning side to side, I cleaned and organized my apartment while keeping the bag on my shoulder. This was done to evaluate whether the straps would remain secure while engaging in different activities on the move, ensuring both comfort and safety.

    I sprayed the bags with water to test their waterproofness and observe how quickly the moisture formed beads on the surface. This is important for a daily work bag as it needs to be able to endure various weather conditions such as rain, snow, and sleet, while also being resilient and waterproof.

    Assessing maintenance, I examined the convenience of cleaning each bag at home by utilizing a versatile cleaning solution on a paper towel, and subsequently evaluated the bag’s level of cleanliness after a duration of 2 weeks.

    Aesthetics: I matched the bags with outfits varying from formal to informal, evaluating their suitability for various situations.

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