Messenger Bag Types & Style Guide
by Albert Varkki updated 01-05-2023
Messenger bags have gone from the unnoticed tools of bicycle couriers to on-trend fashion accessories for men.
These are less formal than a briefcase but can work with a wide variety of office dress codes – all but the formal. Messenger bags come in a wide range of looks, materials, sizes and with many features to choose from.
About ten years ago, messenger bags suddenly emerged as the stylish way to haul around laptops, books, art supplies and even work documents. This wasn’t just an American trend, either; globally, from NYC to Milan to London, Paris, and beyond, men have embraced this item as both a functional tool and a fashionable accessory.
But not all messenger bags are equal, and not every bag suits every person or purpose. Read on to make sure you make the best choice for you, and that you wear it to your best advantage.
What is a messenger bag?
Originally designed for postal workers to carry letters from house to house, the design on the messenger bag is for long-distance, hands-free carrying of paperwork. The materials are traditionally hard-wearing fabrics like canvass or leather, and the shoulder strap is often padded to protect the shoulder from chaffing and soreness.
Of course, the messenger bag has come a long way since its postal origins, being taken on by high-speed urban couriers, on foot or bicycles, to allow them to jump on and off of the street without having to load and unload their bags, and to use the handlebars, etc. Now, with its adoption by the Hipster community and even businesspeople in more casual offices, it has reached a new level of development and style.
A Short History of the Messenger Bag
Messenger bags are known by other names as well: courier bags, carryalls, and others. As mentioned above, they were originally used by postal workers to walk their delivery rounds, but even so, there are remnants of ancient bags that look surprisingly similar to them. What that tells us is that the style is well-suited to the human form – otherwise it would not have lasted for millennia.
The first modern version of the messenger bag was worn by utility linemen as early as the 1950s. The bags were designed and manufactured by the De Martini Global Canvas Company to carry the tools necessary to the linemen’s work, but to allow for hands-free toting. They could then climb poles and other such tasks with their tools slung over a shoulder. Surprisingly advanced, those early bags were waterproof-lined cotton canvass and even had an invoice pocket on the inside. Back then, the bags were available only to linemen in the New York area, and not sold in stores.
Globe Canvass was the main messenger bag supplier for the utilities companies through the seventies and eighties, with a color-coding system to indicate who worked for which utility company. John Peters of the De Martini company upgraded the bags in 1984, adding reflective safety stripes and changing the cotton canvass to nylon for greater durability.
Not only did these new bags work well in the field, but the new changes showed potential for the retail market. Military map bags then sparked a trend for fashion-driven messenger bags. These items were popular even before the bike messengers took on messenger bags in force.
The history of messenger bags goes back more than a hundred years.
Pros and Cons of a Messenger Bag
There are a lot of good things about messenger bags, and a few weaknesses. Men who spend a lot of time walking, riding the subways, cycling and other active things that need the hands free, often wonder which suits them better: the backpack or the messenger bag.
The answer isn’t automatic, but it’s pretty simple to figure out by asking the right questions. Go through the following guidelines and you’ll be able to answer this question on your own – and set yourself up with just what you need.
1. They Are a Sweet Spot Between Too Formal and Too Casual
Most modern workers, outside of the manual labor sectors, need to carry at least a laptop. The old, black, squared-off laptop bags are outdated, so the message that sends will not be one you want employers or clients to receive. But traditional briefcases can be too formal for some situations too – not to mention they tie up one of your hands. Backpacks are too casual for almost any type of meeting, too.
So what’s left?
Not to worry, the messenger bag fits into that sweet spot between briefcases and backpacks, and with the wide variety of styles and features to choose from, they can suit your style and needs. A messenger bag has all of the easy functionality of a fanny pack, but it’s bigger, more professional, and has more features. They're also great for kids going to school and for those at college.
You won’t look like your grandad’s banker, and you won’t look like a schoolkid either.
2. They are Really Practical
Messenger bags make it easy to grab specific items quickly. Various pockets on the inside or outside of the bag hold pens, phones, gadgets, cards, paper, and whatever other small items you need quick access to. The main compartment is usually a single cavity, or is divided into the or three compartments. These hold laptops, tablets, documents, or even a change of clothing for a workout or after work meetup.
Quick, easy, and functional. That’s the messenger bag.
1. Not Ideal for Bike Riders
The shoulder strap makes walking around, hands-free, with a messenger bag an easy thing. Not so on a bike. Especially if you have a heavier item inside it – like a laptop or a book – the bag can slide around in front of you, interfering with your knees and steering, and throwing off your balance. All in all, unless you have a specialized bike messenger bag, with a clip to keep it from sliding around your torso, it won’t be a very practical option.
If you commute by bicycle, you’re better off with paniers (some of them clip on and off for easy removal and loading).
2. Uncomfortable for Heavy Loads
Even when walking, bending down, or getting in and out of chairs, a messenger bag can shift around and fall – or simply make you look clumsy. Especially if you are carrying a heavy load in it, the shoulder strap can slip from your shoulder too, causing either a potentially catastrophic laptop-fall to the floor, or the slightly less serious strap-around-the-waist scenario which, again, might make you look pretty silly in front of a client or employer.
If you do use a messenger bag, use the handles once you’ve arrived at your meeting, and avoid uncontrolled shifting of the bag and items in it. Only sling it over your shoulder when you are en route between locations.
The main thing to consider, when choosing between a backpack and a messenger bag, is the method you use to move around, the amount you need to carry, and the time you need to carry it.
- If you travel by bike, a backpack (or paniers) might be better.
- If you walk or take public transport, or drive, a messenger bag is better.
- If you have to carry very heavy items, the double straps of a backpack will be better. A laptop, a few documents, and maybe a book will be light enough for a messenger bag. A better bag will have better padding on the shoulder strap, and thereby allow for the carrying of heavier items.
- If you will be carrying items for a long time, the single shoulder strap may cause back strain and pain much sooner than the double straps of a backpack.
Messenger Bags vs Backpacks
That is a good question, and depends on your answers to a couple of questions. If you want to look like a high school student, then a backpack is the way to go. It looks the most casual and is the go-to choice of teens in almost every city across the country.
If you are a grown man, hoping to make a good impression and to show on the outside the confidence and ability you have (or want to have) on the inside, then a messenger bag is a far better choice.
With a messenger bag, you can choose from a classic, almost-formal leather style, or a canvass-leather combo style that marries the chic with the classic, or even a pop of color on the sides that shows your creative side. It’s really up to you – there are thousands of styles and versions to choose from.
Messenger bags have become acceptable (in the place of briefcases) for men aged thirty to fifty, in almost all segments of business. Unless you are a banker, there is probably someone in your office that carries a stylish, high-quality messenger bag – and it fits the office as well as any briefcase. Best of all, where briefcases are stuck in the past, messenger bags make a current statement of style and foreword thinking.
You can see messenger backpacks here.
How to Style Them
The days when men’s bags were known mockingly as “man-purses” are long gone, and men today are fine with carrying the right bag for the right purpose – and the styles have evolved too. Men having a good sense of style is no longer something society mocks. In fact, a lack of style can send the message that you aren’t capable in other parts of your life too.
In order to choose the right bag for you, you‘ll need to know the available styles, features, and types of messenger bag. We’re here to help you do just that.
Types of Messenger Bags
Satchels have two vertical straps that close the bag. Often these are attached to a squared flap that hangs over the opening at the top of the bag. They can come in virtually any material or style, as long as they have those two vertical straps as a closure.
The defining traits of the briefcase messenger bag is that it is made of leather, always has a frontal flap (though it may have either one or two straps with buckles), and usually has some outer pockets on the front as well, for quick access to smaller items without having to open up the main compartments.
Vertical Messenger (Tall and Narrow)
When you picture a messenger bag, it is likely that you picture a bag that is wider than it is high. A vertical messenger bag though, is higher than it is wide. Again, these come in a wide variety of style and materials, including canvass, leather, and more.
When you need a bag that can serve as both a travel bag and a messenger bag, you need a convertible messenger. Bags like this 10X leather bag are perfect for this, offering enough room for both purposes, and having both backpack straps and a shoulder strap.
Military Style Messenger
As the name implies, these are made to take a beating without failing. These are usually made of canvass, but often have leather features on them for style and function purposes. These feature a number of inside and outside pockets, and are usually produced in earth tones, such as greens, browns, khaki, grays, and even camouflage.
Saddle Bag Messenger
This is really a subgroup of the satchel category, with the only real differences being the rounded flap on the front of it and the equestrian styling. They are usually leather but can come in canvass versions as well.
Large Bags with Lots of Pockets
The large messenger bag full of pockets is a favorite of hunters and fishermen, mainly because of the multitude of pockets! A new group that loves these is the new dad, always in need of a wipe or a soother or a toy or a… well, you get it.
Messenger Bag for Cameras
For storing those little items that may be very valuable – and perhaps a bit fragile too – the camera bag is similar to the multi-pocket organizer, but with the pockets on the inside. There may be padding between pockets and sections as well to keep hard parts like lenses and camera bodies from clunking together. There is usually one or two main compartments suited for DSLR or SLR storage (or something similar) and these bags can often be reconfigured to suit different sizes and sets of photographic gear.
Best Material for a Messenger Bag
There are three main types of material used in the construction of most messenger bags, and the type you choose depends on the purpose of the bag, your personal style and, in some cases, your budget.
Nylon is not nice to the touch, doesn’t usually look great, and has no status attached to it – but it is cheap, pretty durable, and comes in a wide range of colors. It may soon look scratched-up and worn, but the fabric itself will stay intact long after it looks worn and will still keep the internal items safely stowed. It is also often waterproof, but check to make sure before purchasing. This material is most popular with utility-type jobs, rather than office ones, as there is no need for the nylon-toting utility tech to exude a sense of style – they’re just there to fix the WIFI and get you up and running again! Cheap and hardy – that’s the motto of the nylon bag.
Leather’s less-expensive cousin, pleather is a synthetic material made to look like leather. One point in its favor that is a big hit with many people is that it is a vegetarian (sometimes vegan) product – no animals need to be slaughtered in order to make pleather. That said, most leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, and those animals would have been slaughtered anyway. Pleather is better at shedding water and other stains than most leather is, but tends to crack and crease as it ages. It is not nearly as durable as genuine leather but is a great alternative if you love the leather look, but the price is a bit too much for you at this point in your career.
The most common construction material for messenger bags is canvass. This material is lightweight and durable and can be printed in a number of colors and styles. Unlike leather or pleather, canvass bags can often be thrown into the washing machine and come out looking great. Be sure, if you do this, that there are no leather parts on the bag that you want to keep looking good – the washer will wreck them. Canvass bag styles are not usually suitable for more formal office situations (there are exceptions), but they are very practical and easier on the wallet than some of the leather alternatives. It is worth noting that canvass bags are not always waterproof, or even water-resistant, so it is important to check that at the time of purchasing. If you live anywhere but the desert, you’ll want something that can get your documents and electronics through an unexpected shower.
For the best in style and prestige, nothing beats leather. The best bags for that sense of reliability, quality, and authority are made of a thick leather. It can be distressed for that saddle-like look, or textured to show off the thickness of the leather itself. It can also be easily customized with a laser engraving.
The downside of genuine leather is, of course, the price. The process of creating high-quality vegetable-tanned leather (as opposed to the cheaper, chrome-tanned, which is less durable) is a long and complicated one… and we need to pay for that. Choose Italian Leather for the finest quality.
If your budget can handle it though, it is a great choice for the coffee-shop meeting and all but the most formal of office environments. For the far-sighted among you, these bags are actually a great value – they can last not only years, but for generations, if cared for properly. Spread the cost over that long and the value is easy to see. A less rough-and-tumble option, but one that looks great, is a roughed-up or suede finish… Masculine elegance at its best!
What Size Should You Choose?
This question has almost as many answers as there are men out there. The bottom line is that it will depend on what you want from your bag, and what you are like as an individual.
What’s your style? Are you a traditionally masculine type who wants a messenger bag that look like you just pulled it off of an elegant quarter-horse? An artsy type who wants to make a POW statement when you enter a meeting room? There are options for those types and every man between them. There are few right vs wrong answers when it comes to style, but here are a few pointers:
- It should go with (or strategically complement) the rest of your look.
- It should suit the environment in which you’ll be using it (i.e., the right level of formality).
- It should suit your height and build. Small bags on big men might look like clutches; but big bags on slight or small men can have the same comic effect on the other end of the spectrum! A quick look in the mirror, and an honest assessment of the whole look, should instantly reveal if the size suits you or not.
The next consideration is the job you’ll want to bag to do. If you’re carrying a lot of heavy items, you’ll want a very durable bag and a thicker strap with some padding on it. Do you need a lot of pockets? Do you need a padded pocket, or will you use a laptop sleeve? Would you be better off with two, less expensive bags – one more formal and the other more casual – or one more expensive bag for all duties?
It’s really only you who can answer these questions, but once you do, we’re confident you’ll know the right bag when you see it.
We also have messenger bags for women here.
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