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10 Tips for Finding Your Best Handbag

Purge your purse and get a bag that looks good and feels even better

Women wearing handbags in various ways

Getty Images (3), gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images; HGL/GC Images; Giovanni Sanvido

Don’t be like Lorraine Kelly, center, and carry around bulky bags. Take a lesson from Tracee Ellis Ross, left, and Marisa Paredes, right.


En español | Most of us have a do-it-all bag we schlep around and rarely clean out. Sometimes it’s not big enough (or the right size and shape) for everything so we add yet another bag to the daily drag. We carry way too much and hang onto a bag that’s not doing our shoulders, back and posture — let alone our style — any favors. Here’s how to start over:

1. Weigh your current bag with all your stuff

Get on the scale with it and then without it. Didn’t realize you were carrying a load the weight of a bowling ball? Carry two bags at a time (like many of us do) and you’re in double trouble. This is not a workout, it’s a health wrecker that can throw off body alignment and symmetry, and cause neck, back and shoulder pain, even headaches. Let’s aim for one new “dream bag” that works for our needs and body.

2. Let it all go

Dump out your bag on the bed. Remember when all you carried were your keys, cellphone, wallet, one pair of sexy sunglasses, a tissue, breath mints and a lipstick? Well, you’re still not Mary Poppins! Go back to the original plan and add a few small items: a compact foundation with SPF 30, a mini hand sanitizer, travel pill case, single-use floss pick and a portable charger. Stash the umbrella, water bottle, full-size makeup kit and hairbrush, tape measure, lint roller, wipes, dry shampoo, hand cream, deodorant, extra shoes, scarf, Band-Aids and workout gear in a permanent backseat-of-the-car tote or at your desk.

Bette Midler fits all her essentials in a small tote.

Hollywood To You/Star Max/GC Images/Getty

Bette Midler fits all her essentials in a small tote.

3. Keep bag proportions sleek and chic

Here’s a fashion editor secret: The closer a bag lies to your body and the higher it rests on your form, the less bulk and width it adds to your shape. Whether your new bag is a shoulder bag, tote, satchel or hobo style be sure it tucks neatly under your arm with a “drop” (strap length from top of shoulder to bag opening) that’s not too low. Your bag should rest between your midriff and hip, not be slung low at the thighs — even a cross-body bag, though one that lies across the tummy can be both secure and camouflaging.

Alanis Morissette tucks a flap shoulder bag with chain strap under her arm.

Neil Mockford/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Alanis Morissette tucks a flap shoulder bag with chain strap under her arm.

4. Multi-straps make sense

Multi-straps are especially important if you must carry a laptop, iPad, e-reader and chargers for work. Choose a structured satchel or tote with several compartments and straps that can be worn different ways. Look for top handles to hand-carry your bag and an adjustable strap that works diagonally across the body or hung over one shoulder. Exterior and interior pockets keep tech items and your other basics organized. A shoulder bag with convertible straps offers hands-free security for commuting, traveling or working off-site so you can walk and sip your matcha or latte.

Cheryl Baker with two handbags

HGL/GC Images/Getty Images

Cheryl Baker wears a flat cross-body with zipper compartments (but, sadly, hefts a tote, too). Note the long diagonal strap that hits right at the hip for a body-elongating line.

5. Look for comfy handles and padding

Rounded handles on satchels and totes make gripping comfy so rings don’t dig in and manicures stay chip-free. Chain-strap bags benefit from shoulder-top leather pads to prevent marks and grooves and drag on clothes and bra straps.

Kate Moss hand-carries a round-handled satchel.

Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

Kate Moss hand-carries a round-handled satchel.

6. Try on bags in front of a full-length mirror

Whether you shop for a bag online or in an actual store, check the proportions and versatility at home before removing the tags. First, fill the bag with all your actual stuff for a reality test. Examine every angle and see how it looks with a variety of clothing, from jeans to a dress. A medium-size bag is sensible for everyday wear. Skip oversized bags (ouch!), minis (evenings only), framed lady bags (royals only), belt bags (that emphasize tummy bulge) and weird shapes (like circles and triangles) — all are impractical.

Elizabeth Bourgine wears a structured yellow shoulder bag over a black outfit

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Elizabeth Bourgine wears a structured yellow shoulder bag over a black outfit — note the short drop of the strap so the bag rests nicely.

7. Make a fresh style statement

Your bag can personalize any neutral or casual outfit in seconds. If you choose an everyday black bag (as many of us do), make sure it has some major fashion details — studs or buckles, a print pattern, quilting, an interesting buckle or a gold chain strap. Ready for a bigger change? How about an orange suede chain-strap bag, a vibrantly patterned tote or a beige bag that will pop against all your dark neutrals?

Tracee Ellis Ross slings a chain-strap tote

gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images

Tracee Ellis Ross slings a chain-strap tote — note the leather grip — in vibrant orange and green over a neutral casual outfit.

8. Alternate shoulders, or shoulders and hands

Break the body stress cycle:  Vary the ways you wear and carry your bag to relieve muscle strain. Any sign of numbness, a stiff, tight or tingly feeling, and it’s time for a quick switch. Don’t keep consistent pressure on the same spot for long periods of time.

Marisa Paredes hand-carries her satchel.

Giovanni Sanvido/Getty Images

Marisa Paredes forgoes a shoulder strap on this day and hand-carries her satchel.

9. Security counts 

Many bags now have magnetic top closures that click shut, although zippers, flaps and turnkey closures offer more protection. At the very least your bag (even an open-top tote) should have an inside zippered pocket or two. Some things do not belong in your bag at all. Leave your Social Security card, your passwords list, checkbook, passport or birth certificate, and store-specific credit cards at home unless you will need them. And this is another reason to keep your bag high, where you can watch it — not on your back or low at the thigh.

10. Two last words of etiquette and caution

Never put your bag on the table in a restaurant or at a meeting (rude and unsanitary) and never leave it dangling on the back of your chair in a restaurant or cafe (thief bait!). Place your bag on the floor between your feet or loop the strap under one leg of your chair.

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson.

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