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Our Guide to Handbag Styles

Ask any stylist about the one element in a woman’s wardrobe that tells the story of who she is and they will likely say: “her handbag.” You can throw on a pair of old sneakers, jeans, and a tee-shirt, but add a great bag and suddenly your entire look is elevated. Even a well-loved high-quality bag says, “luxe.”

The good news is that you don’t need dozens of them. Realistically, few of us swap out our handbags on a regular basis. Also, although designers are constantly adding elements to bring them fashion forward there are fundamentally five types that will serve most of your needs. If you just build your handbag wardrobe thoughtfully with these five handbag styles, you’ll find that you have the right one for just about any occasion.

Always go for the best you can afford. This is one of the few items that will likely be in your wardrobe long after you’ve turned over almost everything else. As for color, you’ll probably want the one you use most often to be in a neutral, one that works with the majority of your wardrobe. That doesn’t mean you must have a black, tan or even a mono-colored every day bag. For spring, a navy or white or even a coral might be one of your best neutrals.

For your everyday bag function and comfort should be your first consideration. And then, just as with your clothing, proportion and size should always be considered. You don’t want your bag announcing itself before you do, or being so petite as to be inconsequential. It has to make a statement about you, one that is flattering.

Let’s look at the basic types of handbags and their functions. (You’ll find some selections for our UK/EU readers below the US selections.)

Top handle:

These are the satchels, doctor’s bags, bucket-type bag, bowling bags, just about anything with shorter handles. What defines them is a flat base and one or two handles. These days almost all of them come with a removable cross-body strap, giving you the option to go hands free. But generally, they are meant to be grasped by the handles. Softer, slouchy leather, suede or other textiles say “relaxed/casual.” Stiffer, structured or boxy styles say “classic/professional.” For most of us, a satchel type bag will be our daily go-to because it has the volume to carry most of what we need while still looking polished and pulled-together.

Boyy Ombré Detail Top Handle Bag

Boyy Ombré Detail Top Handle Bag, $1,025 

3.1 Phillip Lim Mini Alix Leather Top Handle Satchel

 3.1 Phillip Lim, Mini Aix Top Handle Satchel $695

Charlie Carryall 28 In Ombre Snakeskin

COACH, Charlie Carryall 28 In Ombre Snakeskin, $495 

Little Liffner Mademoiselle Lizard Embossed Leather Bag

Little Liffner, Mademoiselle Lizard Embossed Leather Bag, $490 

Staud Mini Moreau Suede & Leather Bucket Bag

Staud, Mini Moreau Suede & Leather Bucket Bag, $295 

Cross Body or Shoulder Bag

These often vie with the satchel bag for the most popular daily use handbag. They include saddle bags, messenger bags, buckets, narrow zip top (and often with multi external zippers), magnetic or twist lock fold-over tops with similar structure to satchels, all running the gamut from very classic to extremely casual. The more structured and moderate in size the more classic and dressy they appear. This could even include the Chanel-type quilted bags. The larger, less structured in shape, and less refined in texture or material, the more casual they appear. They can be small enough to accommodate just the bare necessities or large enough to match a satchel in volume. Cross body bags are a requirement for when you need – or want – to be hands-free.

Saint Laurent Medium College Quilted Leather Crossbody Bag

Saint Laurent, Quilted Leather Crossbody Bag, $2,450

 

Mar Jacobs, Softshot Crossbody, $425

Mini Jessie Leather Tassel Cross Body Bag

Reiss, Mini Jessie Leather Tassel Cross Body Bag, $320 

Marlow Turnlock Chain Crossbody In Colorblock Signature Canvas 

COACH, Marlow Turnlock Chain Crossbody In Colorblock Signature Canvas, $195 

Melissa Leather Crossbody Bag FRYE

Frye, Melissa Crossbody Bag, $198

Topshop Cami Cross Body Bag

Topshop Cami Cross Body Bag, $40 

Clutch 

We generally think of two styles for a clutch purse. The first ones are trim and more casual versions like small envelope or a baguette bags. Although these may have small handles or wristlets they are still meant to be held in your hand. The key word being “clutch.” The smaller more delicate versions, including minaudieres, have more refined textures and materials – beading, metallic finishes, velvet, crystals, beads etc. – and complement more formal attire. These aren’t functional bags (unless you are an extreme minimalist) but they add an elegant finishing touch to any formal outfit.

 

Judith Leiber

Judith Leiber Couture Airstream Ombre Swarovski Crystal Clutch, $2,695

Gucci Linea A Pouch

Gucci Linea A Pouch, $550

Coach Alexa Turnlock Clutch

Coach Alexa Turnlock Clutch, $195

Botkier New York Cobble Hill Colorblock Clutch

Botkier New York Cobble Hill Colorblock Clutch, $68

Envelope or Pouch

You can certainly find envelope bags in a cross-body version (those often have chain handles) but generally, like a clutch, they are meant to be hand-held and carried close to the body. Their fundamental structure is that of an envelope and is best suited to a dressy-casual occasion, such as going out with friends, a business meeting when you don’t want to appear overly fussy, or an informal date night. But don’t expect to pack them with too much stuff. Anything larger than a phone, lipstick and small wallet will alter their sleek silhouette. They’re not the most practical of bags, but they can really make an outfit say “chic”.

Bottega Veneta Oversized Ostrich Clutch

Bottega Veneta Oversized Ostrich Clutch, $6,100

Burberry Small Envelope Clutch

Burberry Small Envelope Clutch, $260

Loeffler Randall Beaded Pouch

Loeffler Randall Beaded Pouch, $198

Rebecca Minkoff Quilted Leo Metallic Envelope Leather Wristlet

Rebecca Minkoff Quilted Leo Metallic Envelope Leather Wristlet, $148

Tote

The most versatile of handbag styles. Whether you are a young mom, an executive, or a packrat, you need a tote. Everyone needs a tote. In fact, almost everyone has several. But here we’re referring to fairly plain, and larger sized totes. Their function depends on the environment. Unless you’re going to the beach, your tote should be simple and classic in style: less adornment, fewer embellishments. There’s even some wisdom to carrying a sleek, simple leather tote for your larger more professional – or pedestrian – items (like papers or spare shoes) and a smaller bag or envelope for your personal items. That way you can keep valuable items more secure in the smaller bag. For many women the tote has replaced the briefcase altogether. And come summer everyone wants a colorful and practical beach-y tote.

Prada Large Monochrome Leather Tote

Prada Large Saffiano Monocrome Tote, $2,150

Saint Laurent Large Leather Shopper Tote

Saint Laurent ‘Shopping’ Leather Tote, $995

GigiNY Tori Tote

Gigi New York Large Tori Leather Tote $375

COACH Turnlock Tote

COACH Turnlock Tote, $295

Calvin Klein Monogram East-West Tote

Calvin Klein Monogram East/West Tote, $160

UK Selects

Chloe Small Drew Shoulder Bag

Chloé Small Leather Drew Shoulder Bag, £1,250.00

Kate Spade New York Margaux Spade Stud Medium Satchel

Kate Spade New York Margaux Spade Stud Medium Satchel , £305

Marc Jacobs Little Big Shot Satchel

Marc Jacobs Little Big Shot Satchel, £284

nadia minkoff camden tote UK

 

Nadia Minkoff, Camden Tote, £165

Rebecca Minkoff Megan Small Feed Bag

Just one final point: since you’re going to be spending a little more for basics, make sure you take good care of them. That means pre-treating with stain guard if necessary and getting them repaired or polished as needed. With just a little maintenance you’ll have a great handbag wardrobe for a long time.

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