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Ask Belle: Is It Ever Ok to Wear a Backpack?

Hi Belle,

I’m going back to school in a mostly casual environment in September. What do you think of backpacks? I’m worried that a backpack would look goofy on a woman planning her fortieth birthday party. I’m also worried that my 40-year-old shoulders will suffer under a full load of books in a messenger bag. Is there any version that works for grown people?

Thanks, Jenny

As a student myself, this is a question that I understand.  With so many books, a laptop, and extras to haul around, most “stylish” bags won’t get the job done.  I don’t have as many books now as I did my first couple of semesters, so I alternate the Lo & Sons OMG and the Dagne Dover Tote for class.  But if I did, I would probably be carrying a backpack.

Backpacks are certainly easier on the back and shoulders than messenger bags.  So my advice is this:  If you’re going to carry a backpack, own the backpack.

Don’t buy a “fashionable” backpack just because it looks good (because it’s still a backpack, and it probably won’t be tough enough for the task).  Buy a real backpack and carry it with confidence.

Also, another issue is finding one with a built-in computer pocket.  If you can’t find that, buy one large enough to hold your laptop, and supplement with a padded computer sleeve.

Personally, because I see a backpack as being a purely utility item, I don’t think of them as being part of an outfit.  Here are a few options that I didn’t find objectionable:

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Marc Jacobs Domo Arigato Bag ($198)

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Jansport Classic ($55)

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Tumi Voyageur ($345)

I also like this Tumi Calais computer backpack.

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Herschel Heritage Backpack ($55)

This is my favorite bag in the whole post.  I really like the simple look and color combination.

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Mountain Hardware Escala Backpack ($55)

I think a hiking-style backpack would be the only kind that I would use again after school was over.  So if that’s the case for you, I would go this route.

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    17 comments

  1. Mica says:

    Ooh, I really like that Herschel Heritage Backpack! Although I mostly work from home, I like to switch up the scenery and this looks nice and functional. Bonus, it’ll help me blend in with the students/not look like an interloper.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  2. Nora says:

    Everlane has a great and well-reviewed backpack.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Good call.

      August 3, 2015/Reply
    • Liz says:

      Yes, I bought this a year ago for law school (https://www.everlane.com/collections/womens-backpacks/products/womens-twill-backpack-navy). Simple fabric with leather accents – it doesn’t conjure high school or college (I’m 10 years out of college) for me the way a Jansport or the more technical/hiking backpacks do. This one has minimal pockets (there is a laptop sleeve against the back), so I have stylish pencil cases and the like. My other tip, which others may disagree with: don’t carry a purse, too. It’s nearly impossible to look put together with a backpack and purse – they each give off different looks. Lugging around lots of bags always looks a bit ridiculous (I know, I also find myself with a gym bag, purse, and lunch bag some days). You can most likely put your purse essentials into your backpack (some items – like headphones and pens – you would already have in both anyway). I sometimes carry a small (empty) purse or casual clutch (just big enough for keys, phone, wallet, pen, lip stuff, sunglasses) in the backpack or in my car that I can use for a lunch or happy hour if I don’t want to lug the backpack.

      August 4, 2015/Reply
  3. jo says:

    Those are actually very cute backpacks!

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  4. Monica says:

    I love that Marc Jacobs backpack. If I needed a backpack that would be The One.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  5. C says:

    I was just eyeing my coworker’s Herschel: https://www.amazon.com/Herschel-Supply-Co-Survey-Black/dp/B0077BZO2O/ref=cm_wl_huc_item

    (We have one of those annoying consulting jobs that requires you to schlep a laptop with you everywhere, which can start to wear on your shoulders with a subway commute and a tote.)

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  6. nevermindtheend says:

    The idea of wearing a backpack in the summer is making my back sweat just thinking about it.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  7. Rachel says:

    North Face is the way to go. I love the back support for carrying heavy items (aka, laptop) and the side pockets are great for carrying my nalgene/coffee.

    Not stylish, but it saves the health of my back and allows me to get everything to/from where I need to go without being the bag lady.

    https://www.thenorthface.com/shop/womens-borealis

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  8. Ayesha Masood says:

    I agree with the “owning the backpack” part. I would recommend camelbak. They are the sturdiest around and really comfortable to carry around. Even with a large laptop, couple of notebooks and water bottle you will not feel a thing.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  9. Emily says:

    Baggu makes a great backpack that fits a laptop plus some other items. Good way to try out a backpack as its only $40!

    https://www.shopbop.com/backpack-baggu/vp/v=1/1547791746.htm?folderID=30825&fm=other&os=false&colorId=46141

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  10. Curvy CEO says:

    I would actually recommend foregoing a backpack altogether and just get a rolling computer bag (sort of like airport carry-ons). Everyone used those in law school and it just made sense given how heavy the books were. Plus, people will likely mistake you for a lawyer, accountant or other professional as you travel around.

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  11. julia says:

    I really like lululemon men’s backpacks. They are sturdy, stylish, unisex, and has so many compartments that makes organization easier.
    https://shop.lululemon.com/products/clothes-accessories/men-bags/Mens-Cruiser-Backpack?cc=0001&skuId=3606887&catId=men-bags

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  12. Lea says:

    I got this one last year and I’m still in love https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0076D08J2?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o07_s00

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  13. Jennifer D says:

    I’m a consultant who works at home a couple days a week, so I am constantly schlepping a laptop (company issued and heavier than I would like), multiple binders, and a ton of paper around. I use a rolling bag from Eagle Creek, which saves my back, and keeps my business formal clothes from wrinkling. However, it mainly rolls on pavement and carpet going to and from my car to the office and my home. I’m not sure how long it would last on the multiple surfaces on a college campus, and I wouldn’t want to use it for a walking commute. That said, I occasionally use a backpack when traveling which works better when in transit. It has a laptop pocket, is super padded, and has a ton of pockets – picked it up at Best Buy(!), and was totally worth it. I really advocate function with this – I started with a “grown-up” messenger bag for grad school, but switched to a backpack as it was just more functional and comfortable. Lots of great options listed here – hopefully it’ll be somewhat fun to shop around and try them out. Would love to know what you end up with! Good luck in school!

    August 3, 2015/Reply
  14. Laura says:

    As someone who just turned 40 I would say it’s perfectly ok to wear a backpack. I’m a nursing student and I carry books that you wouldn’t believe not to mention a laptop, notebooks tons of index cards and whatever else I may need. I carry the Swiss Gear backpack https://www.swissgear.com/backpacks/1696-scansmarttm-laptop-backpack I’m sure it is the nerd backpack of all backpacks but I don’t care. It is a great bag and I’m sure my back thanks me every day for carrying it.

    August 4, 2015/Reply
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