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How to Choose a Stylish New Handbag

Find the right style, shape and color that suits your lifestyle


spinner image A collection of different types of women's handbags
Jamie Chung/Trunk Archive

Here’s how most women choose a new handbag: “I’ll know it when I see it.” Not a totally bad idea since any accessory purchase is partly emotional. However, that strategy is very time-consuming and won’t help you narrow down the search to the color, style and useful features that’ll make your choice “the one.” Aside from those in pursuit of a pre-loved designer bag, most women 50-plus just want a more updated piece of shoulder candy that freshens their look without breaking the bank. Here are six tips to finding your next style-maker.

spinner image Old Navy Crescent Crossbody Bag for Women in Taupe; Mango Quilted Bag with Flap in Light/Pastel Brown; Quince Italian Leather Shoulder Bag in Cognac; JW Pei Carly Metallic Saddle Bag in Silver
Left to right: Old Navy Crescent Crossbody Bag for Women in Taupe ($11, oldnavy.gap.com); Mango Quilted Bag with Flap in Light/Pastel Brown ($30, mango.com/us); Quince Italian Leather Shoulder Bag in Cognac ($99, quince.com); JW Pei Carly Metallic Saddle Bag in Silver ($99, jwpei.com)
Old Navy; Mango; Quince; JW Pei

1. Know what’s trending

Let’s start here since it’s easy to get sidetracked by ongoing sales, special promotions, compelling store displays and social media. Bag trends include the impractical in size and shape – like jumbo and micro-mini sizes, giant clutches and top-handle-only bags that require constant gripping. On the practical side, you’ll see a lot of rounded and crescent shapes (just avoid too-skinny moon-like slivers and too geometric circles), soft slouchy hobos, roomy buckets and tailored shoulder bags that riff on iconic versions of the saddlebag, fold over flap and double C (you-know-who) styles. Design details include knots and hardware accents, woven leathers, chain straps and quilting. It helps to know what’s new.

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spinner image Charles & Keith Cassiopeia Bucket Bag in Black; Montana West Hobo Bags for Women Shoulder Bucket Bag in Special Red; Austin Shoulder Bag in Sage Leaf Smooth; MKF Collection Daphne Crocodile-embossed Vegan Leather Shoulder by Mia K in Charcoal Gray
Left to right: Charles & Keith Cassiopeia Bucket Bag in Black ($76, charleskeith.com); Montana West Hobo Bags for Women Shoulder Bucket Bag in Special Red ($30, amazon.com); Austin Shoulder Bag in Sage Leaf Smooth ($124, macys.com); MKF Collection Daphne Crocodile-embossed Vegan Leather Shoulder by Mia K in Charcoal Gray ($44, walmart.com)
Charles & Keith; Amazon; Macy's; Walmart

2. Select a color that complements or accents your wardrobe

Many women opt for a goes-with-anything black or brown bag and love its ability to hide dirt and stains, sit carefree on the floor of a restaurant, car or office and make even relatively inexpensive styles look upscale. In addition, if you wear a lot of black or earth tones year-round (from tees to turtlenecks, sandals to sneakers), adding a like-toned bag to your outfit does create a pulled-together look. Then again, if you’re on your 10th black bag in as many years or just want something a little different, a bag in a cool gray, muted green or soft camel can add a hint of color along with the quiet luxury vibe often found in high-end fashion. Ready to make more of a statement? A metallic or red bag can update everything you wear with an eye-opening spark. Both are on trend for a this-minute, this-season look. Still unsure which color to buy? Here’s a foolproof guideline: Stay with a bag style you love but update the color, or stay with black or brown but try a new-for-you style.

spinner image Kurt Geiger London Recycled Multi Crossbody in Black; Ashioup Hobo Bag for Women in Slouchy PU Leather with Zipper in Black; & Other Stories Leather Shoulder Bag in Black; Madewell The Essential Bucket Tote in True Black
Left to right: Kurt Geiger London Recycled Multi Crossbody in Black ($165, bloomingdales.com); Ashioup Hobo Bag for Women in Slouchy PU Leather with Zipper in Black ($27, amazon.com); & Other Stories Leather Shoulder Bag in Black ($179, stories.com/en_usd); Madewell The Essential Bucket Tote in True Black ($178, madewell.com)
Bloomingdale's; Amazon; & Other Stories; Madewell

3. Choose a body-friendly style

How you wear a bag counts. Many women 50-plus now prefer a hands-free style that lets you text or talk on the phone and grip a latte on the go without a hitch. Forget “handbags.” We prefer slinging a bag on a shoulder or across our bodies. There are four options: Hobos, which are soft, roomy and more free-form shoulder bags; structured shoulder styles with a defined shape; shapely bucket bags, which are somewhere in-between; and cross-body bags, which are designed specifically to give your shoulders a break. The strap situation is crucial to comfort. Many bags now offer both a shoulder and longer cross-body strap for quick switches or have an adjustable strap that can go either way. Some shoulder bags tuck neatly under your arm, while others ride lower, on the hip. Avoid bags that hang too low on the thigh — not only do they add bulk to your silhouette but they make access difficult.

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spinner image H&M Women Bag in Black; Wild Fable Utility Shoulder Bag in Tan; Abercrombie & Fitch Women’s Everyday Shoulder Bag in Black; Baggallini Women’s Everywhere Bagg Crossbody Bag in Portobello; Time and Tru Women’s Bryxton Saddle Shoulderbag in Black with Removable Crossbody Strap
Left to right: H&M Women Bag in Black ($35, www2.hm.com/en_us/); Wild Fable Utility Shoulder Bag in Tan ($20, target.com); Abercrombie & Fitch Women’s Everyday Shoulder Bag in Black ($80, abercrombie.com); Baggallini Women’s Everywhere Bagg Crossbody Bag in Portobello ($110, target.com); Time and Tru Women’s Bryxton Saddle Shoulderbag in Black with Removable Crossbody Strap ($25, walmart.com)
H&M; Target; Abercrombie & Fitch; Target; Walmart

4. Evaluate the quality, but don’t be a snob

This may not be as exciting as selecting a bag color or shape, but quality is something to think about. Some bags look great online but disappoint in person, so before you take out your credit card, read buyer reviews first. Give the bag a careful look. Visible stitching should be even and not unraveling with loose ends; hardware shouldn’t look as shiny as tinsel or tinfoil; studs and buckles should look a little costly, even when they’re not. Low-cost fabric bags are now lightweight stylish choices and depending on bag style work with more polished clothes or jeans, cargoes and joggers. Though leather still has a posh rep, many vegan leathers now have a very similar feel and look and act like the real deal up close. And yes, faux leather, also known as vegan leather or PU leather, is cool. There’s no need to feel cheesy about choosing it.

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spinner image MZ Wallace Crosby Hobo in Camel; Rosetta Jane Hobo Bag in Tortoise Shell; I.N.C. International Concepts Kyliee Quilted Faux Leather Large Shoulder Bag in Dark Silver
Left to right: MZ Wallace Crosby Hobo in Camel ($295, mzwallace.com); Rosetta Jane Hobo Bag in Tortoise Shell ($48, jcpenney.com); I.N.C. International Concepts Kyliee Quilted Faux Leather Large Shoulder Bag in Dark Silver ($100, macys.com)
MZ Wallace; JCPenney; Macy's

5. Choose a size that makes sense  

Some women now lug around too much “stuff.” They end up with a bag so lumpy and heavy that their neck, shoulders and posture are strained (along with the bag) or they resort to carrying a handbag and a backup tote to fit everything in. Bag shopping is the ideal time to assess and edit your actual needs. Before you head to a store or browse online, dump out your current everyday bag on a table and get realistic. This will encourage you to toss unnecessary extras (for example: a full-size hairbrush, extra sunglasses, a full makeup bag), trim down your wallet and downsize some of the basics so your body and bag stay in healthier shape. When you do get the bag at home, fill it with your newly revised batch of essentials before removing the tags. Check the bag from all angles — side view included. Is the volume evenly distributed and supported, or do the packed items sink to the bottom? Does the bag look sleek when filled, or does it add too much width to your silhouette? The mirror doesn’t lie.

spinner image Realer Large Hobo Bucket Bag in Faux Leather for Women in Black-Golden Hardware; Mellow World Jasmine Convertible Satchel in Peach; Liz Claiborne City Tote Bag in Black
Left to right: Realer Large Hobo Bucket Bag in Faux Leather for Women in Black-Golden Hardware ($41, amazon.com); Mellow World Jasmine Convertible Satchel in Peach ($76, kohls.com); Liz Claiborne City Tote Bag in Black ($56, jcpenney.com)
Amazon; Kohl's; JCPenney

6. Check the organization and closures

Typically, 95 percent of your attention goes to the outside of a bag, but consider any security concerns and interior bag style needs too. This will vary from person to person. Some women are fine with a magnetic closure or open top (with an internal pocket or two), others feel comfier with a zipped, latched or drawstring top. Some are OK sticking their hand in a hobo and grabbing their sunglasses, wallet or a tissue while others prefer designated pockets for all. Those toting a tablet or laptop and a potentially damp or messy item like a mini umbrella or sunscreen may want to keep them separate in deep slip pockets, while those just wanting to stash ID or keys may be fine with a one zipper interior slip.

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