Is it possible to be dressy AND wear a backpack?
December 6, 2006 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How to carry stuff hands-free without a style disaster: What is the most stylishly understated (dressy, even) backpack bag for an urban guy in his 30s, long past the schoolboy days? Is it a lost cause? Am I only deserving of fashion-police arrest? Style Mission Impossible: If a backpack seller did product-placement in The Matrix, and you were the designer entrusted to make it not terrible, what would you do? Are there re-imagined backpacks out there, like say, straps with a cut reminiscent of an open vest? Any alternatives as practical, yet (unlike laptop satchels) not equally dorky? There is also

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to locate a functional bag for carrying stuff around a city that is:
- Hands-free
- Not limited to walking only (ie won't flail all over the place if you lean over / bend down, or go cycling, or run to catch up with someone, etc)
- Stylish. (Most likely stylish in the sense of looking so much like a natural part of the ensemble, that it's all but invisible. But quite possibly stylish in the sense of being prominent but very cool).
- low key, so it will work with a lot of outfits. (This probably means black or very muted).

If it helps, the colours I wear tend to be dark and muted, rather than bright sunny things, and often in a almost-slightly-dressy casual style, but hell, this isn't just about me, humanity itself could benefit from a better urban backpack! :-)

Getting something custom-made is not out of the question either, but the question would be... what to make?

Yes, I also take the carry-less-stuff route, but most times I do need to carry things that are central to what I'm doing or where I'm going.
posted by -harlequin- to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (26 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I live in DC and always see young lobbists running around in Brooks Brothers suits carrying Timbuk2 messenger bags.

There's also always the leather Indiana Jones-ish over-the-shoulder satchel.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 10:42 AM on December 6, 2006

Jeremiah beat me to the outfit, but I was crafting a post noting that some of the trendy messenger bag companies are now making backpacks, which I'm guessing you'd prefer to a messenger bag - here are Timbuk2's offerings. Given the wide range of colors and fabrics they offer, you might see something cool and understated.

I live in DC and always see young lobbists running around in Brooks Brothers suits carrying Timbuk2 messenger bags.

Uggh - time for me to get a new bag...
posted by jalexei at 10:47 AM on December 6, 2006

Try Jack Spade for good things to try
posted by patricio at 10:47 AM on December 6, 2006

Not backpacks, but maybe useful: this was just on Slate
posted by Xalf at 10:51 AM on December 6, 2006

I was on the same quest as you, harlequin. When I was in Hong Kong last week, I think I found what I was looking for - Hedgren bags. They dont seem to sell them in the U.S. (though you can order them online) and Hedgren's own site is pretty flash-intensive but this is the bag I have.

A google search for "Hedgren" will bring up more examples.

On preview: Seconding Jack Spade - I considered that too. Unseconding the Timbuk2 - I think those things are ugly.
posted by vacapinta at 10:52 AM on December 6, 2006

You don't say how much stuff you want to carry around, which seems like a key parameter. Magazines? Gadgets? Books?

ebags has a crazy selection of stuff. You might find something you like, say, under urban/men's/sling

Another idea to try out is a good military-surplus store. At the nearest one to me, I've seen vintage map pouches, for example, that are leather with pewter (?) hardware. Really nice for something like $20. Probably not suitable if you want to carry bulky gadgets.
posted by adamrice at 10:53 AM on December 6, 2006

There was a great discussion on Signals vs Noise (blog of 37 signals) awhile ago - here's the summary post. The readers are your typical urban hipsters, a lot of programmers and designers and the like, so I'm sure there are quite a few bags that match what you are looking for.

Also, do you really want a backpack, or are messenger bags okay?
posted by rsanheim at 10:53 AM on December 6, 2006

I suggest you consider a Mountainsmith lumbar pack.
For day-to-day usage, you can tuck away the lumbar belt and just it as an over-the-shoulder bag. When you want to bike or be athletic, you can clip it around your waist (or hip, if U R 2 kewl) to have it really stay in place. The link above indicates that it comes in black or grey, and if you really want to eliminate the signature Mountainsmith yellow accents, you don't need the bungee or zipper-pulls; they can be cut off.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 10:55 AM on December 6, 2006

MEC in Canada has a few good options. Dunno where you live, but they do ship to the US and the Blurr bags may be available elsewhere.

MEC Gigabyte and Megabyte meet the muted black criteria.

Blurr Note Shoulder bag is, well, a shoulder baginstead of a backpack.

MEC's Carry On Travel Pack is what I use - black and pretty classy, backpack straps zip away if you want to use it as a shoulder bag. Lots of pockets for stuff when you travel.

Or, as others have said, get some excessively cool courier bag, like the one made out of a Soyuz landing parachute.
posted by GuyZero at 11:03 AM on December 6, 2006

i got a jack spade messenger bag two years ago for christmas and some of the seams that attach the strap to the bag are coming open/undone. it is my daily bag, but the bag that preceded it cost $10 at walmart and didn't have this problem.

having said that, i love the bag, it looks great, and i get complements on it. i think i can ship it back to be fixed (lifetime warranty) and plan on doing that soon.
posted by noloveforned at 11:28 AM on December 6, 2006

Response by poster: Also - what do people think of hardshell backpacks? I only just started looking at them and my normally opinionated self is still soft and malleable as regards these :)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:31 AM on December 6, 2006

Response by poster: You don't say how much stuff you want to carry around, which seems like a key parameter.

Often it's not much. Normally it's stuff I could fit in a bulky oversized purse, but the "manpurse" option isn't hands free. (I use one sometimes, but don't like it much).

Also, do you really want a backpack, or are messenger bags okay?

I'm after a backpack rather than a messenger bag, but I'm not entirely closed on the subject. However, messenger bags have the flails-when-you-bend-down problems and so on. In terms of pure functionality over long periods, I think backpacks are far better, and I kind of want to have my cake and eat it too :)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:40 AM on December 6, 2006

The short answer to the question is 'no' - no it's not possible to be dressy & wear a backpack. The backpack is far too linked to student life and camping trips. For men or for women. Those rhinestone encrusted teensy backpacks women wear are also not ok. Accept that you'll be carrying a classy, sleek messenger back type, preferably the kind that doesn't cause sore shoulders and back injuries from lopsidedness.
posted by Amizu at 11:44 AM on December 6, 2006

I was recently on the same quest (though looking for a tasteful messenger bag) and ended up with one of these - a very sleek, and deceptively roomy, black bag in excellent quality leather. I couldn't be happier with it, it's everything I was looking for and perhaps you too. I ride with it daily and t doesn't flop around much at all - the leather moulds and clings nicely to your lower back
posted by Flashman at 12:05 PM on December 6, 2006

Freitag. They're really into recycled stuff.
posted by krisjohn at 2:05 PM on December 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you're in Canada, you can get into the vanguard and get a leather backpack, the preferred bag of the new Leader of the Opposition and possible future Prime Minister, Stephane Dion.

I predict he's going to start a fashion trend. Consider it geek chic, the next frontier.
posted by mikel at 2:16 PM on December 6, 2006

A shoulder bag will not flail if you wear it crossing your torso. this allows you to wear it behind you which is far superior to on the side. It is much more functional than wearing a backpack style bag and also can be worn motorcycling with no ill effects.
posted by JJ86 at 2:49 PM on December 6, 2006

Best answer: This guy manages to look stylish, dressy, out of the matrix, and be wearing a backpack. Laptop bags are ok as long as the dorky factor is removed, right? The straps on these are apparently ergonomic/padded/etc., which is novel for leather backpacks (as far as I know).
posted by sentient at 3:00 PM on December 6, 2006

Is it possible to be dressy AND wear a backpack?


Not only do backbacks look goofy on a well-dressed guy, they're incredibly annoying to deal with in a crowded urban setting, doubly so for everyone around you.
posted by mkultra at 4:08 PM on December 6, 2006

-harlequin-: Also - what do people think of hardshell backpacks?

I have a semi-hardshell camera backpack. (It's not plastic, but a very, very rigid cloth-like material.) For cameras, it's great. I wouldn't want to use it for day to day stuff though.

If you don't need to carry too much stuff, you may want to look into a hydropack shell. (something like a camelback) I found an off brand one in a biking shop that I really liked. It's small, and designed for biking/ hiking and the like so it handles movement really well. I actually use it more as a backpack then for holding water, but it's nice to know that if I wanted to, I could drop in the water bladder and use it like a canteen.

For a bigger more robust pack, I've always favored Lowe Alpine but for cool and tactical, you can't beat Blackhawk.
posted by quin at 4:31 PM on December 6, 2006

Seconding Freitag. I bought one when I was in Switzerland and they are badass.
posted by davidnin at 4:41 PM on December 6, 2006

I've just given in and bought a backpack, but I keep a nicer bag for when I have to go to client meetings and the such. It's far from ideal, but it works out reasonably well.
posted by KirTakat at 5:00 PM on December 6, 2006

As a self-professed bag junkie, I have a couple of ideas for you.

Go to Levenger and click the 'briefcases and totes' link. The Stanley, the Livingstone, and the Saddlebag Sling are all pretty dressy, though pricey. I have the Stanley, and it's a very nice bag. It holds far more than it looks like it would hold at first glance. Plus it's easier to get into than it looks: the flap is held closed by studs. There is a large lengthwise stash pocket in back for a newspaper or whatever.

But my absolute favorite bag is my medium ballistic messenger by Timbuk2. Click the 'Build your own' link. That's what I would recommend most. Mine's in basic black. It's not really dressy, but the ballistic nylon is far dressier than the Cordura most messenger bags use. It's the closest to dressy + utilitarian you'll find, I think. I've flung it about a fair bit over the past two years, and it's holding up fine. Plus the stabilizer strap makes it so that you CAN actually ride a bicycle and stuff without the bag flailing about. I recommend getting a strap pad, too, if your stuff gets at all heavy. There are also cool little pouches and things you can get for the strap so that you have quick access to small things like keys, cell phone, PDA, or what-have-you.

IANAMan though, so YMMV.
posted by seancake at 2:16 AM on December 7, 2006

2nd MKultra. Sex poison and subway hassle.
posted by Marnie at 5:59 AM on December 7, 2006

I got this Victorinox bag as a present meant to fill the same need you identify.

It's a great bag, very comfortable and has a fairly professional appearance.
posted by extrabox at 9:02 PM on December 7, 2006
posted by quadog at 3:50 PM on December 11, 2006

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