The best work bags for women have specific features that make carrying all our essentials a joy—not a job. You’ll want an interior that’s well organized and roomy enough to hold daily items, comfortable straps that stay put on the go and a stylish aesthetic that’s polished but not stuffy (you’re not looking for a briefcase here). After evaluating more than a dozen options on the market, I found there are two main types of work bags: those that have several pockets and slots, and those that are simpler and mostly just have one large compartment. The choice comes down to whether you like a structured bag or a more minimalist design.
With this in mind, I tested several contenders over a period of 2 weeks. I slung them over my shoulder and ran down a full city block to see if the straps remained in place; I sprayed the exteriors with water to check if the moisture evaporated quickly; I packed them to the brim to assess the weight and capacity. After collecting this data and more, I determined the Cuyana System Tote to be the best work bag for women overall for its flexible storage and durable leather. For an affordable alternative, the Bellroy Tokyo Tote Second Edition is the best value option that works plenty hard at a great price. And if you’re carrying a laptop specifically, the Dagne Dover Signature Tote pairs security and protection with a sleek design.
The following are all the winners from my in-depth testing:
- Best Work Bag For Women Overall: Cuyana System Tote
- Best Value Work Bag For Women: Bellroy Tokyo Tote Second Edition
- Best Work Tote For Women: Leatherology Uptown Vertical Tote
- Best Work Bag For Laptops: Dagne Dover Signature Tote
MORE FROMFORBES VETTED
I’m a Barcelona-based fashion and design editor and writer. I’ve worked at many publications and publishing houses over the past 10 years; most recently I served as a book editor at Gestalten in Berlin. My life includes a lot of commuting, working in cafés and frequently traveling for meetings (as well as pleasure), which means I spend much time on the move, hauling my laptop, keys, wallet, books, snacks and water, as well as the occasional change of shoes or outfit. Having a durable, stylish work bag is essential for me, and I’ve experimented with many over the years.
For this piece, I interviewed three experts who specialize in accessories and bag design specifically: Ulrich Grimm, a design consultant and lecturer of accessory design at Parsons School of Design in New York City and former executive vice president for global design at Calvin Klein; Virginia Rolle, the Milan-based founder of the popular Big Bag Club and a fashion consultant for clients like Alexander McQueen, Tory Burch and Valentino; and Leonie Sterenborg, a former curator of the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam.
How I Tested The Best Work Bags
I read hundreds of bag reviews and researched factors such as size and capacity, materials, colors and price. I also considered technical features like storage, laptop protection and the ability to stay securely closed while remaining easily accessible. In order to make a fair comparison, I focused on similarly sized bags—between 11 and 18.5 inches in width, 10 and 15.5 inches in height and 3.5 and 5.5 inches in depth, which I determined is large enough to hold most items needed for work without feeling cumbersome.
I narrowed my list of contenders to test to seven bags, which I carried on a daily basis for 2 weeks, evaluating each on the following criteria:
- Capacity: Using a standardized range of products (13-inch laptop, 6 x 9 inch notebook, iPhone 11, wallet, keys, pen, 16.9-ounce steel water bottle, snack box, light sweater, laptop charger, earphone case, glasses case and makeup pouch), I tested the fit and organization of the items within the bag, as well as its sturdiness when full.
- Comfort And Security: To assess whether the straps would stay put while performing different activities on the go, such as bending down, reaching up high and turning side to side, I tidied up and cleaned my apartment while wearing the bag on my shoulder, since this involved many different quick movements. I also closed the bag and turned it upside down to test whether items would spill out or remain inside. Additionally, to mimic the real-life scenario of having to rush to catch a train, bus or plane, I ran a full city block in my neighborhood of Barcelona with the bag to see if it slipped off my shoulder or any of the contents fell out.
- Resilience And Waterproofness: Since it’s necessary for a daily work bag to be able to withstand the elements (like rain, snow, sleet), I sprayed the bags with water, to check for waterproofness and how quickly the moisture beaded on the surface.
- Maintenance: I judged the cleanliness of the bag after 2 weeks of use and tested how easy it was to clean each at home using an all-purpose cleaning product sprayed on a paper towel.
- Aesthetics: I paired the bags with outfits ranging from formal to casual, assessing the ability to wear them in different scenarios.
Best Work Bag Overall For Women
An All-Around Work Bag That Can Be Customized
Cuyana System Tote
Dimensions: 17.25 x 10 x 5 inches | Material: Leather | Colors: Black, Caramel, Cappuccino, Dark Olive and Stone | Compartments: Main compartment with interior pocket | Closure: Snap buttons and leather lacing | Straps: Two top handles | Warranty: 2 years
- Women who want a customizable bag for organizing items
- Those who appreciate high-quality leather that’s sturdy and easy to clean
- A refined and sophisticated look
- You’re on a budget
The Cuyana System Tote successfully combines elegant aesthetics with practical, customizable organization in a leather bag that is made to last. It’s the San Francisco–based brand’s bestseller, a favorite of many users and the best work bag I tested overall.
When I began evaluating the market, I thought I would prefer a very structured work bag. But turns out, I’m not consistent with pocket organization, and I actually prefer to reach for items in the main cavity rather than checking little compartments. Still, when I traveled or carried items that required more sorting—such as a passport, phone or lipstick that I didn’t want floating around loose—I found I needed a bag that offered a bit of structure, without having to micromanage where I put everything. The System excelled with its flexible design, which you can customize with options like a laptop sleeve or tote insert for the right storage level for you. (It can also be monogrammed for an additional $15).
I tested the System in its most basic form, without any add-ons. All my items (from my wallet to water bottle to makeup pouch) fit easily inside the main cavity, which also has an inside pocket you can remove—I liked how I could pull up the pocket to get items in and out easily. The sturdy, flat bottom allows the bag to stand upright on the floor, which was convenient when I was working at a café or traveling. The System doesn’t have any zippers but stays securely shut with the leather lace and snap closures. Generally, it was comfortable to carry it on my shoulder, although one of the handles tended to slide down when I walked for a few blocks. Since the straps aren’t adjustable, the solution was to grip the straps, which wasn’t uncomfortable but limited my ability to be completely hands-free.
Looks-wise, the System is fashionable, thanks to its sloped handles, pebbled leather and sleek silhouette. The leather also adds resilience, making it easy to maintain. I did notice some marks on the inside of the bag, which didn’t alter its functionality but were a disappointing detail considering the price tag––although, thanks to the 2-year guarantee for manufacturing defects, customers encountering this problem can replace the bag. All in all, the System still felt like the smartest choice for an all-purpose work bag.
Best Value Work Bag For Women
A Thoughtfully Designed Bag With A Reasonable Price Tag
Bellroy Tokyo Tote Second Edition
Dimensions: 18.5 x 14.2 x 5.1 inches | Material: Recycled nylon, recycled polyester, recycled PET bottles, leather | Colors: Bronze, Melbourne Black, Navy, Ranger Green and Saltbush | Compartments: Main compartment with interior laptop sleeve, two slip pockets, two fold-away compartments and an exterior zippered pocket | Closure: Zipper | Straps: Two shoulder straps | Warranty: 3 years
- Women who want a structured bag with well-designed compartments
- Commuters who need a secure way to store a laptop and other work items
- Those who want an affordable price
- You prefer a high-end bag you can carry at night or in formal situations
Because Bellroy is an accessory brand that specializes in technical bags, it’s no surprise that the Tokyo was one of the best I tested in terms of compartment design, strap padding and construction. At the same time, I’d say it was the most utilitarian and least fashion-forward of the lot, which is the main drawback, although opting for a different color might improve that aspect (I tested it in Saltbush, a pale tan). The Tokyo is also quite roomy, which is great if you need lots of space; otherwise, the compact 12-liter version might be your best bet.
To test its capacity, I threw in all my essentials (remember, that includes a 13-inch laptop, notebook, snack box, light sweater, laptop charger…), and I had room to spare. The interior is structured with five different pockets inside a zippered main compartment, but since it’s made of a flexible woven fabric, it’s not stiff, so you can create your own order within this bag. A bonus for digital nomads: The Tokyo comes with a built-in laptop sleeve with extra padding to protect devices from impact. I also liked the two expandable compartments on the sides that fit my water bottle and could store an umbrella or pair of shoes. On the exterior, a discreet pocket runs the length of the bag and is so well disguised that I didn’t even notice it was there at first (which is a good thing for extra security).
When I sprinted down my block, tidied up my apartment and walked with the Tokyo to gauge how well the straps stay put, I was impressed that the bag didn’t jostle and remained comfortably on my shoulder. I credit this to the length of the straps, which are slightly longer than the Cuyana System’s and help anchor the Tokyo in position. While I liked the lightweight feel of this bag, the recycled fabric gave it a more casual vibe than the Cuyana System’s rich leather. I felt best wearing it with laid-back outfits, when working from a café or running errands. The material was also prone to stains; I picked up some marks—likely a consequence of grabbing a bite on the go or resting the bag on dirty surfaces—that I couldn’t remove with my all-purpose cleaner. However, I tested it in the lightest color (Saltbush), which is, therefore, the most difficult to keep pristine. If you’re considering the Tokyo, I’d recommend one of the darker colors—it comes in a lovely Navy and Melbourne Black—which should be easy to maintain and require less upkeep.
Best Work Tote For Women
A Streamlined Leather Tote With Elevated Simplicity
Leatherology Uptown Vertical Tote
Dimensions: 15.5 x 14.75 x 3.75 inches | Material: Full-grain leather | Colors: Black Onyx, Bordeaux, Navy Blue and Cognac | Compartments: Main compartment with two additional inside compartments and a zippered pocket | Closure: No | Straps: Two shoulder straps | Warranty: 1 year
- Those who want a well-constructed leather tote bag that won’t weigh them down
- Women who need just a few interior compartments for their basics
- Commuters and travelers who prioritize sturdy seams, pockets and straps
- You need a lot of interior compartments or a specific laptop sleeve
Totes are one of the most effective designs when it comes to bags, according to design consultant and Parsons lecturer Ulrich Grimm, since they are simple, resilient bags with ample capacity for holding multiple items. Consisting of a main cavity with two handles, usually without a top closure or gusset, they’re often made from cotton and canvas and exist in every shape (from the grocery bag you get at the local farmers market to the merchandise of any trendy brand). A tote’s functionality can also extend to workspaces when made from more refined materials. This is precisely why I deemed the Leatherology Uptown Vertical Tote to be the best work bag for those who want a streamlined, minimalist option crafted from gorgeous leather at a great price.
The Uptown is made from full-grain leather and is very soft to the touch, and although I officially tested it for only 2 weeks, it showed all signs of aging beautifully. The stitching of the seams is excellent, and it still looked as good as new after putting it through its paces. I spritzed the surface with water to mimic different weather conditions, and the droplets quickly beaded without leaving behind stains. Even some light food and makeup stains were easily removed with my all-purpose cleaner (a bonus for people with messy tendencies, like me). The leather, combined with the inner nickel hardware, also made my casual jeans-and-sneakers outfits look more elevated, which was a plus when I headed to work in Converses but wanted to look a bit more put-together.
In terms of storage capacity, the Uptown is not as roomy as the Cuyana System or the Bellroy Tokyo Tote but still had enough space to fit my array of testing items. In addition to a small zippered pocket inside, there are also two bigger compartments. Personally, I found them too slim and deep to be truly useful, since I had to reach too far down to pull out the lipstick or pack of gum I had stashed there. I also found it easier to leave items like my keys, phone or wallet loose inside. I just patted the soft, supple leather exterior of the bag to locate them, which was especially handy when I was at the head of lengthy supermarket lines.
A drawback that some users have criticized is the Uptown’s lack of closure, so naturally, all items inside (except for those kept in the zippered pocket) come out of the bag if it’s flipped over. Still, I found that since it’s a tall, vertical bag and the straps don’t hang too low, it was secure when I was walking or running, and nothing tumbled out or felt at risk of being stolen on a crowded subway. It’s a soft-bottomed bag, which means it didn’t really stay upright when placed on the office’s floor or other surfaces, but for that same reason, the Uptown is also lightweight and comfortable to carry. And for less than $200, you can’t beat the quality and overall construction of this leather tote.
Best Work Bag For Laptops
A Sleek Crossover Between A Briefcase And A Handbag
Dagne Dover Signature Tote
Dimensions: 11 x 13.75 x 4.5 inches | Material: Vegan leather and coated canvas | Colors: Onyx, Bleecker Blush and Graphite | Compartments: Main compartment with padded laptop and tablet compartments; zippered pocket; two slip pockets; phone, pens and card compartments; bottle compartment; and detachable key leash | Closure: Zipper | Straps: Two handles | Warranty: 1 year
- Women who need to carry many items, including a laptop
- Those who prefer organizing items in multiple compartments
- Anyone who appreciates a safe, secure bag with a refined look
- You don’t carry a laptop or prefer a lightweight bag for everyday work
First things first: Out of all the bags I tested, the Dagne Dover Signature Tote is the one that would, seemingly, fit my work lifestyle the least: I don’t usually go to formal meetings, and I don’t always carry items, like my computer, that require special protection. But that’s precisely what makes the Signature an excellent companion for those who need something closer to a briefcase or laptop bag than a traditional work shoulder bag.
The Signature is by far the most secure bag I tested: It has a zippered top closure and rigid bottom with studded feet, so it stayed upright. The 13 x 8 x 0.75 inch laptop pocket is fully padded, and the bag’s coated canvas adds an additional layer of protection against impacts, something I appreciated when I accidentally knocked over the bag a few times. And even if you happen to leave it unzipped, the Signature has a magnetic strap that secures both padded compartments for an extra measure of security on the go.
While my laptop fit neatly in the pocket, I had to be strategic about where I placed the rest of my items, such as my wallet, glasses case, earphones and keys. This bag has 11 pockets within the main compartment, which really organized people will love, but it required me to make decisions in the morning about where to place what, so I could find items later. It was also one of the heaviest bags I tested, at 2.6 pounds when empty (the Cuyana System Tote weighed 1.9 pounds, and the Bellroy Tokyo Tote weighed 1.4 pounds). The rigidity of its design adds heft, as do all those compartments and the gleaming gold-toned hardware. On a long day of walking around Barcelona, the bag was heavy on my shoulder—I ended up placing my arm on it like a top-handle bag, which was surprisingly more comfortable.
At $255, the Signature is on the pricier end. But the structured coated-canvas body is durable and easy to clean and proved to be perfectly waterproof during my spritzing tests. The zippers glide open and close on the go, which I appreciated when I needed to quickly access my phone. The shape is reminiscent of classic case bags, and the color I tested (Bleecker Blush, which is actually a light shade of gray), also fit in well with most of my office outfits. It even looked great in relaxed, social situations, too. When I wore this bag to brunch, one of my friends commented on how refined it looked.
Other Work Bags I Considered
Finding the best work bag for you depends on your personal preferences, lifestyle and aesthetic taste. I evaluated bags that didn’t make the cut for me but might be better suited to your needs.
Everlane Cactus Leather Oversized Hobo: This bag was one of my favorites thanks to its chicness, ample capacity and light weight. However, the material quickly showed signs of wear on the top edge of the panel, which isn’t seamed.
Everlane Cactus Leather Hobo: This bag was too small to carry for the assortment of items I needed to fit inside a work bag, so I decided not to consider it as a contender, but if you travel light, this could be right for you.
Madewell Zip-Top Medium Transport Tote: Although this is a well-rounded bag, there were some details that could be improved. My 13-inch laptop didn’t fit inside when the top zipper was closed, the messenger strap wasn’t too comfortable (nor very flattering) and the hardware and finishes weren’t as refined as other models’.
Street Level Reversible Tote: As the most affordable offering of the bags I tested, at $49, the finish and materials were definitely of lower quality, and some features, such as the magnet closure and reversible exterior, weren’t well constructed.
Dreubea Faux Leather Tote Shoulder Bag: Although a highly popular model on Amazon with a very low price ($10), this Dreubea bag didn’t offer the same level of quality as the others I tested. As all the consulted experts stated, a better-quality bag, even if more expensive, is a wiser purchase in the long run.
Mansur Gavriel Small Zip Tote: This bag is a brand bestseller with a beautiful design, but at $545, it was remarkably more expensive than other options, without any truly unique features that would justify the price.
Tory Burch Perry Triple-Compartment Tote Bag: This classic Tory Burch bag is highly rated and very popular. Yet the cost of this model ($448) was also on the more expensive end of the scale, so I didn’t feel it was attainable for most shoppers.
Longchamp Le Pliage Original L: A classic, beloved design in the world of work bags, Le Pliage was a strong contender but wasn’t as sophisticated in its organization as other bags I ultimately chose to test.
L.L.Bean Boat And Tote Zip-Top: The L.L.Bean tote is a classic, but its design is much less refined or suited to formal office environments than the rest of the contenders.
MZ Wallace Medium Metro Tote Deluxe: Although the bag offers many compartments and is quite versatile, its price tag ($275) is notably more elevated than a bag with similar characteristics, such as the Bellroy Tokyo Tote.
AllSaints Kita Leather Backpack, Acne Studios Atton Ripstop Backpack and Calpak Kaya Laptop Backpack: I determined that backpacks are a different breed from the most common work bags for women, so I decided not to include them this time—however, if you’re a fan of backpacks, these are some of my favorites.
How To Pick The Best Work Bag
After talking with a variety of experts and evaluating many options on the market, I learned that certain features matter most when selecting the best work bags for women.
When considering which bag size is right for your needs, think practically. Virginia Rolle, a fashion consultant and the Milan-based founder of the Big Bag Club, has felt the frustration of splurging on bags that were not appropriately sized for the realities of her job. “I travel a lot for work, for example, and having a bag that can hold everything in my universe is essential,” she says. Know which key items you need daily, and choose your bag based on that. Don’t go overboard, though, since you also don’t want a bag with too much space that will go unused: Not only is it likely to feel bulky and cumbersome when mostly empty, but it’ll also be unnecessarily heavy and potentially a cause of back pain down the line.
Materials for work bags are first and foremost a question of necessity. They need to be resistant, waterproof and ideally stay clean with minimal upkeep. In that sense, “Leather or vegan leather is the most commonly used material for work bags,” says Leonie Sterenborg, a former curator of the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. Nylon and canvas are also good alternatives, that hold up well with proper care. Whatever the material, Rolle emphasizes the importance of durability: “The quality of the fabric is immediately recognizable to the touch,” she says. Whether you’re choosing between leather, vegan leather or canvas, she advises spending a bit more to get a bag that will last, because it’s an accessory you will interact with daily.
Bags come in all shapes, so prioritize what will be most comfortable for your commute or regular routine. Apart from a backpack, which experts like for evenly distributing weight (though I didn’t test any for this piece specifically), handheld and shoulder bags tend to be the best options for long days on the go. Ulrich Grimm, a design consultant and lecturer of accessory design at Parsons School of Design in New York City, advises against crossbody bags if you need to carry more than a few items, since this style naturally sticks out from the body and will feel bulky if packed with too many items. In that case, a simple tote bag, handheld or shoulder design is a more comfortable bet.
How structured or unstructured you prefer the inside of your bag to be depends on your work habits and behavior. Do you carry many different items with you? Do you need extra protection for devices? Are you disciplined enough to keep belongings in separate compartments (and remember where you put them)? Look for features that match your needs accordingly. “I’m a lover of clutches, internal pockets and extra shoulder straps,” says Rolle, and for that reason, she always leans toward buying bags with customizable storage. Grimm, on the other hand, is a proponent of simplicity: “I would look for something that’s not over-compartmentalized, perhaps with one or two pockets inside or outside,” he says. If you need more places to stash items, put them in a small pouch you can transfer in and out of your larger work bag, he advises.