When Sara Farrar worked in California, she took a purse to work every day. It seemed like the hip thing to do, and since she drove to work, it was easy to toss the thing into the car in the morning. When she moved to a consulting job, she upgraded to a fancier purse so she could be taken seriously among her more well-heeled co-workers, “regardless of how impractical this was as I ran through the airports,” she told me via email.
Finally, after moving to New York and staring down a long commute from Brooklyn to Midtown in 2017, her resolve, like her spinal discs, began to thin. Her back hurt. The purse didn’t fit everything she needed.
So she followed the trajectory of an increasing number of white-collar women. According to the market- research firm NPD, sales of women’s backpacks are up by 28 percent in the past year, even though men’s backpacks are down. Women’s handbags, too, have suffered a drop over the past few years, says Beth Goldstein, NPD’s accessories analyst. Farrar went to Amazon.com and bought a backpack. She now wears it to the office every day.
Of course, some women, such as students and exterminators, have always had to shlep pounds of gear on their back. But I’m talking about the Ann Taylor–wearing, brown-bag-lunching, nude-heel crew. Many of them have started carrying backpacks too.
Each woman’s conversion to the double-shoulder lifestyle is unique. Anna Swanson told me she started coming into the office with a backpack instead of a purse when she began work as a bureaucrat, which seemed, to her, to be a more “masculine” sphere. I corresponded with dozens of women for this story, and they told me they had grown tired of juggling multiple bags on public transportation or while walking—in heels, no less! They shared tales of trying to squeeze a laptop, makeup, gym clothes, a water bottle, notebooks, and a phone into a classy tote, then giving up and saying, Screw it.
“A year ago, I would have said, ‘You’ll have to pry my leather satchel purse from my cold, dead hands,’” says Silver Lumsdaine, a marketing specialist in San Francisco. “But after standing in a jam-packed bus for a 45-minute, swaying, nausea-inducing commute over the hills of San Francisco with my hand cramping in pain from holding my laptop-burdened purse, I did what any reasonable person would do.” Reader, she got a backpack.
The rise of the lady backpack is mostly being driven by women in cities, especially in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas, Goldstein says. The impetus is roughly the same as the one behind the rise of athleisure and sneakers as officewear: comfort. Women have stopped accepting that beauty has to be pain. “It’s the convenience, the hands free, and not hurting your shoulders. Not worrying about dropping your phone,” Goldstein says.
Things kicked off a few years ago with mini backpacks, that ’90s-era throwback, says Meaghan Mahoney Dusil, the co-founder of PurseBlog and PurseForum, where my colleague Amanda Mull formerly worked. Then, “people became aware of the impracticality of it all,” Dusil told me via email. After all, “the purpose of a bag is to carry our items.” Enter full-size backpacks.
Fancy new start-ups have come out with lines of professionalish backpacks for women, but according to Dusil, longtime purse designers such as Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton have also all hopped onto the backpack bandwagon. “I’ve seen every major handbag designer offering a backpack version of one of its most popular styles,” she told me. “Overall, consumers are opting for the brand they love and finding a backpack they offer.”
Women who didn’t want to spend a whole paycheck on a bag, meanwhile, sent me links to Samsonites and North Faces, as well as an assortment of is-it-a-purse-or-a-backpack hybrids. Some searched in vain for one that was at least “somewhat attractive.” Several gave up and dusted off the old JanSport.
The flip side of comfort, of course, is pain, and that seemed to be the most common reason that women made the switch. Some women had sustained shoulder and neck injuries from their heavy purses—something chiropractors confirm can be the result of a big bag hanging on one shoulder. “I found my right shoulder—my purse shoulder—started to look lower than the left in the mirror. I also felt some pain from my neck down my right side because of the pressure. So, I got a cute and professional backpack. The back pain went away,” says Lisa Gillespie, a reporter in Louisville.
Those who have waded into the soothing backpack waters speak of a simplified morning routine and an easier time with travel. When airlines say your personal item can be “a purse or backpack,” the advantage clearly goes to the more capacious backpack. The women who emailed and messaged me say they either gave up their purses entirely or rarely use them anymore, even for activities like after-work drinks. Once you go ’pack, it seems, you never go back.
Some say they’ve only gotten positive reactions from peers and supervisors, but others have not been so lucky. The less enlightened around them—who have apparently never experienced the torment of a physical therapist trying to “work out” a knot on their purse-bearing shoulder—have mocked their age or lack of professionalism.
Laura Wolf, who works at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., says several men have made jokes about whether she’s off to a camping trip. “It’s ridiculous to me because many men use full-sized backpacks that could actually hold camping gear,” she wrote to me. Terese Souders told me she was asked by a co-worker if she was Dora the Explorer, patron saint of lady backpackers.
When criticisms like these come up, it’s important to push back with a reminder that the backpack is “really about self-care,” as Dana Bernson in Massachusetts says. It’s also about feminism. Women are waking up to the idea that you shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable to be taken seriously. You should be able to have your stuff and carry it too. If society insists that we spend our precious free time at the gym, at least give us a place to put our leggings.
But now, the revolution is nigh. Much like Mark Zuckerberg wears the same hoodie each day so he can focus on making billions, women are rejecting the Great Morning Purse Transfer, the traditional moving of wallets and keys from one bag to another. They are seizing their backpacks—and seizing the day.
“I think it is important to show younger women in my profession that you don’t need to worry so much about fashion choices to get ahead in your career,” Wolf says. “Men put on their outfit and walk out the door and think of more important things, and women are under constant pressure to consider what [they’re] wearing ... Let’s solve some real problems instead.”
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