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Men, it's in the bag

As tech gadgets get small, working men need to get comfortable with purse-like man bags

Rex Huppke

December 3, 2012

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Because I'm a very important man, I carry very important things, including: a smartphone, an iPad, gum (fresh breath is critical when you're important), a huge wad of cash that indicates importance, a slingshot (to ward off unimportant people) and a card inscribed with the quote: "Humility is a virtue."

The problem is, I hate putting things in my pockets. It weighs me down and limits my ability to leap into action at a moment's notice.

But essentials must be stored somewhere while traveling to and from work, so I and men everywhere face a problem. We need a bag. A satchel. A — dare I say it? — man purse.

There was a time when the manly briefcase was a fine thing to carry, but these days it looks rather unhip. Besides, technology has largely done away with the need to haul file folders and paperwork, so a briefcase can be a clunky waste of space.

The surest sign that smaller bags for men are becoming a trend is that several celebrities — including David Beckham, Kanye West and Jay-Z — have been spotted carrying purse-like bags. The British department store Debenhams reports a 2,700 percent increase in sales of man bags since the start of the year.

But working men are making this transition cautiously. We dudes can be weird about fashion, and when you consider how long it took some guys to feel OK about wearing a pink shirt, the move to a bag that in any way resembles a woman's purse might be glacial.

"I feel like, listen, if you've got a lot of stuff, get a bag, but I'm a girl so I understand that concept," said Daisy Lewellyn, a fashion expert and author of the book, "Never Pay Retail Again." "But I still think it's considered a bit fashion-forward for men. As a guy, if you're not very comfortable being labeled as fashion-forward or trendy, you might shy away from a man bag."

There's an interesting anthropological aspect to the plight of the modern working man who can't figure out how to carry stuff. (Don't miss my upcoming thriller: "The Plight of the Modern Working Man Who Can't Figure Out How to Carry Stuff.")

Dave Munson, the president of Saddleback Leather Co., quickly ran down the history of men and bags.

Otzi the Iceman, a more than 5,000-year-old male found frozen in the Italian Alps in 1991, carried a small leather pouch on his belt. William Wallace, the Scottish revolutionary depicted in the movie "Braveheart," carried a traditional sporran, a leather purse. Ulysses Grant slung a haversack across his chest, Davy Crockett had a hunting bag and Indiana Jones went nowhere without his British gas mask bag.

"If you're going on an adventure, you've got to have a bag," Munson said.

And what's more adventurous than going to work? (Don't answer that.)

"We're seeing the needs get smaller and smaller with iPads and iPad minis," Munson said. "It's really only been about 50 years since men stopped regularly carrying bags. It's because we drive or take mass transit and don't walk as much. The less you walk, the fewer things you tend to carry." But he does believe smaller bags for the modern hunter-gatherer are making a comeback.

"I think it's going to be refined more and more," he said. "Right now a lot of bags can be worn by feminine women, but it's kind of a challenge for them to be worn by manly men. The designs that come about will be defined more and more to show that this is a man's small bag and this is a woman's small bag."

Lewellyn agreed.

"I think you have to kind of let the trend set it, kind of hang around the block, wait a little bit and see what happens," she said. "The line is so thin with men. In football, they can slap each other on the butt on the field. But don't you dare think about doing that at the party later on."

So given that we're approaching the season when Santa Claus — the guy with the ultimate man bag — comes around, should a murse (man purse) be an option for your hard-working loved one?

I say, yes!

First of all, guys need to get over themselves. If you've got stuff to carry and it'll make life easier to put it in a bag, PUT IT IN A BAG!! If someone wants to ridicule you for it, reaffirm your macho status by clobbering them with that bag.

Munson and Lewellyn shared some thoughts on picking out man-friendly bags.

"Before purchasing a bag, you have to decide what statement you're trying to make," Lewellyn said. "My dad, he's not trying to make a statement, he just wants to carry his stuff around. So he takes advantage of his pockets and then might have some kind of holder for his tablet. But if you want to have a bag, then I'd say something like a leather one that's slightly larger."

Munson said strap width is key.

"Wider is more masculine," he said. "Also a strap that goes across your chest. Wearing it across your chest is a little more masculine as well."

Munson pointed out that a bag can be very personal, and when you choose right, can become a part of who you are and how you're remembered.

"There's a lot of that missing today," he said, wistfully. "Think about your grandpa. You'd know him by the stuff he carried with him and left on the coffee table, maybe a pocket watch and reading glasses. What do I carry that describes me, that's a part of who I am? What am I going to leave behind?"

It takes a real man to almost make me cry thinking about man bags.

Fortunately, I always keep a few tissues handy — in the outside pocket of my wide-strapped leather man bag.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.