Black and tan...and espresso, and cafe, and brown, and sand...
January 30, 2008 12:51 PM   Subscribe

When choosing a leather messenger/shoulder bag, how do I decide between brown and black? Should I try to match to the clothes I usually wear, or just pick what I like?

I'm planning to buy a leather messenger bag to use in professional situations like conferences, meetings (especially of the networking variety), and the like. (Right now I'm looking at this and this, but I haven't yet decided - suggestions more than welcome!). I'm a PhD student, female, late 20s, and have finally been convinced that appearance matters. I can get away with jeans/t-shirt the vast majority of the time, but I do occasionally meet with non-student colleagues in professional research settings (think conference room, not laboratory), and would like to look more like them (the kind of job I aspire to) than like a part-time undergrad gopher (been there, done that).

I'm planning to buy some better clothes a little at a time (quality button-down shirts and nice slacks; perhaps a suit or two up the road), but want to buy the bag now. Should I try to match it to what I'll usually be wearing when I use it? Sometimes that would mean a brown bag, and at other times black. Some bags come in a dark brown color (like the espresso bag linked at amazon, above) - is this a solution for getting around the brown/black dichotomy altogether?

I have the same question about leather shoes, actually - usually I wear navy (nice jeans, navy top), sometimes navy and black or navy and grey, sometimes khaki and navy, sometimes navy or tan pants with a white shirt, etc. (Yes, these actually are the colors that I like wearing - don't hate!) Which bag/shoes go with which clothes?

If it seems like I'm overthinking this, it's because I'm willing to spend $100-$400 to get a quality bag that will last - hopefully for decades. Thus, I want to make sure that what I choose will have staying power.

I look young for my age, am on the petite side (5'2", small but not tiny), and would like to do what I can to present myself more professionally in certain situations. A more polished appearance in general wouldn't hurt, either. Please help me figure out how this matchy-matchy stuff works when it comes to leather bags/shoes. Thank you!
posted by splendid animal to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Black goes with almost everything. Brown goes with slightly less. Brown also gives off "hippie vibes" more readily. Go with black for a professional career. When society crumbles and you have to live in a Mad-Max-style dusty wasteland, you can switch to brown.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:58 PM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Black is always better!
posted by Maias at 12:58 PM on January 30, 2008

Are you married to the idea of a leather bag? Because if you're not, I would suggest neither. A bag is a great way to spruce up an otherwise drab outfit, so (if it fits your personality) go for a bright color.

If you have to get a leather bag, I'd go for a rich brown that will age gracefully, rather than black that will fade and get scuffy in a bad way instead of an "I'm a well-traveled archaeologist" way.
posted by bobot at 1:07 PM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Perhaps more of a formal brown would suit. The latter, darker bag looks a little Indiana Jones-ish, and might not go with more of the suity kinds of outfits that you might want to wear. On a sidenote, I owned a bag like this before and developed a deep loathing for the thin strap. Even though it had a little shoulder piece, it never stayed where it should have been and my shoulders usually felt the brunt of it. I own a bag with a thicker strap more like the first one you list. It's not perfect, but much more comfy. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I like this other one as a choice for you either as it really looks like it will not hold all that you will need it to. I may be wrong, but it looks a little too thin.

A disclaimer here: I am a guy. Take my fashion advice at your own risk. But...I generally do pretty well for myself.

Best of luck.
posted by boots77 at 1:13 PM on January 30, 2008

I am not a fashion expert [or any other kind of expert], so I'm not going to try and persuade you that dark brown looks classy and not hippie-ish just because I think so.

What I will say is that if you're buying this bag to look more professional in the future, brown leather looks better with age+use than black leather unless you use black polish and potentially have that transfer to your jacket/shirts.

What I really want to say is: no matter what colour of leather you get, get leather that is good enough that it won't look like crap in a few years of daily use. If you're not a good judge of that, then ask someone who is. It's a tricky business [and I find that I'm terrible at it], but it will make the difference between having a bag that looks like grandpa's old luggage and one that is falling apart and cracking everywhere.
Also, take good care of it. Regular maintenance and lovin' [ie: rubbin' with dubbin] is simple and helps protect your investment.
posted by Acari at 1:13 PM on January 30, 2008

Actually, black and brown are both neutrals (all my advice is drawn from Stacey & Clinton on What not to Wear) and so will go with anything, but really, you don't need to "match" your bag to your clothes, you bag can be a contrast that pops. Mine is red (from Levenger) and I get a lot of complements on it. I would say, really, get the most fabulous bag you find that does what you need it to do and makes you happy. Pick a rich, expensive-feeling color.

And speaking as a female academic, I have to say that many academics are somewhat, um, fashion-challenged. I seriously doubt anybody is going to notice a black or brown bag, although they might very well notice if you show up top an interview or a presentation in ratty jeans and a t-shirt (well, I would anyway). You will also notice that at conferences it is the grad students who tend to be the most "dressed up" b/c they are looking for jobs, whereas those with jobs (and particularly tenure) tend to dress more casually. I do think it's good to dress at least business casual as a grad student at conferences, and it will help you look older/more authoritative. But the bag is just an accessory, so unless all your stuff is in a plastic grocery bag, I doubt it will do much to hurt or help people's impression of you.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:14 PM on January 30, 2008

I like brown. Of course, it is my favorite color, but, as bobot points out, it also looks better with age, unlike black.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 1:17 PM on January 30, 2008

Brown leather means business.
Black leather means style. (or some sort of sexual kink.)

Of the two you linked, I definitely like the LL Bean one better.
But, I can't let a messenger bag thread get away without mentioning Timbuktu Messenger Bags. Top notch, and super stylish.
posted by blastrid at 1:20 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: bobot - Actually I'm working on my PhD in anthropology, of all things. But I'm not an archaeologist, and I'm definitely not Indiana Jones. I'm more likely to end up working in a think tank than a temple of doom.

Thanks for all the pointers - please keep them coming!
posted by splendid animal at 1:20 PM on January 30, 2008

Your bag isn't part of your outfit. You use the bag to carry stuff from one place to another, then you put it down. So really, pick what appeals to you. I'd be more concerned that the bag has good features and durability.
posted by kindall at 1:30 PM on January 30, 2008

pick what you like best. the bag is luggage, not an accessory. a nice, classy bag will always look good, no matter whether it "goes" or not.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:37 PM on January 30, 2008

Setting aside the brown/black issue (I agree that black is somehow more neutral than brown, especially since you wear alot of navy), may I suggest that you order both and test them for:
a) ease holding laptop (borrow a friend's if you don't have one, as you will some day) because the flap over style can mean that the bag won't lie properly.
b) size relative to your body carried different ways (on shoulder, using handles and, especially, if you plan to do the across the chest boob-dividing approach) and with different coats.
c) compartments' suitability for the stuff you carry, e.g., does your planner fit, can it accommodate legal files or three-ring binders, is there a handy place for your cell phone, ipod, plane tickets, etc.

IMHO, the Amazon bag is sleeker and the LL Bean bag is indiputably a classic. Have fun; I'm a briefcase freak on an endless hunt for perfection.

re: the shoes. This may sound like a freaky idea, but consider buying only red shoes and making it your signature. Surprisingly, red reads as neutral next to the colors you wear while simultaneously signalling some independence and spunk.
posted by carmicha at 2:19 PM on January 30, 2008

on further reflection... check return policies first before ordering both bags ;)
posted by carmicha at 2:20 PM on January 30, 2008

Pick what you like best -- they're both neutral. It's not part of your outfit in the belt-and-shoes-must-match way.
posted by desuetude at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2008

Another thing -- fabric bags like the Timbuktu someone mentioned above are much lighter and easier to carry for that reason. Some leather bags are heavy even before you put anything into them.

If you'll be carrying books around, make sure the strap is long enough to wear across your body. Better for your back!

Check out Zappos and, too, for tons more styles...have fun!
posted by frosty_hut at 3:27 PM on January 30, 2008

carmicha: I agree that black is somehow more neutral than brown, especially since you wear alot of navy

wha? I had it drilled into me that black does not go with navy - especially with regards to shoes, but also applicable to bags.

I think the first link looks more professional except for the strap. It looks reddish-brown on my monitor, which is interesting. I think a classy red leather messenger bag could be a great statement, though it'd look weirdly patriotic if you were wearing a white shirt and navy pants.
posted by desjardins at 3:41 PM on January 30, 2008

Best answer: First off: a bag is so part of your outfit. You might not think so, but someone in the room is going to. If you walk into my office with a black bag and brown shoes, I will way notice. I won't kick you out or anything, but I'll notice.

That said: a colored bag is best. I have an olive bag, and it matches nicely with both brown and black outfits. If you are absolutely married to the idea of brown or black, why not go for something camel-colored? A lighter, tan-looking bag is going to match much better with black than, say, an espresso, which will look all kinds of wrong if you're not careful.

Black should not be an option if this is a last-forever, rough-and-tumble kind of bag. It'll age disastrously.

Don't forget to take note of the metal on your bag. Do you usually wear gold or silver jewelery? Make sure the bag matches that theme.

Oh, and lastly: navy is, in my opinion, generally best paired with brown, not black.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 3:48 PM on January 30, 2008

Best answer: I had it drilled into me that black does not go with navy

Yeah, that's drilled into everyone, but I'm of the firm opinion that everyone's actually wrong about this. Note, though, that if you choose to believe I'm correct here, you'll be fighting an uphill battle against the rest of humanity.

Also, I agree with HIcst above; anything you carry is part of your outfit. In fact, I'll go further, and say that anything on or attached to your person, anything you're sitting on, your facial expression, your posture, the room you're in -- all are part of the aesthetic that you emanate. Most folk don't like to believe it, because it deprives us of the illusion of control, but that's the way it is.

Taking note of the bag's metal accoutrements is a really good point, though. I didn't even consider that.

The more I think on this, the more I'm convinced that the leather naysayers are right, though -- a light beige canvas bag with dark brass buckles sounds like it might be perfect. What is it about leather that attracts you?
posted by Greg Nog at 5:20 PM on January 30, 2008

Splendid animal, thank you for asking this question. On the recommendation of another MeFite, I now lust for a pair of Doc Martens Mary Janes and am torn between the black and the brown. I used to wear a lot of black, but have shifted into the khaki/neutral/fall colors palette. So, um, go for the brown, right?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:54 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: Greg Nog: What is it about leather that attracts you?

I like how it looks, and I like how it wears. I have other bags that I use on a day to day basis, including a backpack. I'm thinking a leather bag will be nice for those times when I want to present a more professional, polished appearance.

To comment on the appearance issue - I used to argue against people who tried to tell me that appearance really does matter. Obviously there are many things that matter more, but I'm now convinced that how we present ourselves is worth paying attention to. No matter what I do, I'm presenting myself to others in certain ways - the question is, am I going to be conscious of that and try to improve upon it, or am I going to deny that appearance factors into my interactions with other people? Contrary to what Greg Nog says, however, I do think we have some control over this - maybe more than we typically assume.

Thanks to everyone for your suggestions and insights - I'll update once I've made the purchase (I still have a lot of exploring to do!).
posted by splendid animal at 10:08 PM on January 30, 2008

I really like the L.L. Bean brown bag. It looks more classic than the other one, perhaps because it's not shiny. It would look very nice on your shoulder. I think a brown bag goes with anything. A messenger bag is definintely different than a purse. A purse has to be matched to your outfit, a messenger bag doesn't. People know it serves a more utilitarian purpose than a purse because purses are often used more as outfit accessories than carriers of one's crap. A messenger mag has that "I need to be somewhere; I have a life" appearance.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:29 PM on January 30, 2008

Wow! The no-black-with-navy admonition is new to me! I love the chocolate brown with robin's egg blue color ombo that's been popular in recent years, though, so maybe I should rethink my shoe choice.
posted by carmicha at 3:33 PM on January 31, 2008

In your situation, I'd go with a red leather or cordovan/burgundy leather messenger bag. It's likely that the bag will be the most rich looking part of your ensemble. Your bag can be vivid and strongly convey a professional message. By going vivid, you eliminate the need to be matchy-matchy with your belt and shoes. You'll coordinate, but you don't need to match.

I have tons of briefcases - black, brown, hunter green, cordovan, red. (For a few years, I had an "inside" connection for Coach bags and briefcases.) I use all of my bags, but I carry my red ones most often.
posted by 26.2 at 12:00 AM on February 1, 2008

For those considering fabric bags, as suggested above, I highly recommend Crumpler over Timbuk2.

I have a dog, who occasionally gets a little destructive when left alone too long. He has torn through the canvas straps to both a Crumpler and Timbuk2 bag. I sent e-mails to both companies explaining the situation and asking if they could do anything for me, despite the fact it wasn't exactly a manufacturer's defect.

Crumpler said "Sure, we'd love to help. Send it to us at [a Brooklyn address], and we'll see if our seamsters can do anything with it." Timbuk2 said "Go screw try a tailor."

I'll never buy Timbuk2 again.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 6:40 PM on February 2, 2008

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