Handbags are among the most emotionally and personally significant items a woman can own.

There is no true equivalent for men, and transitioning from book-bag to handbag can feel like a rite of passage for young women. Bags have long been status symbols, with Birkins and Speedys adorning the arms of it-girls through the ages. But perhaps most important, handbags help women organize their lives, feel prepared for minor catastrophes and express their good taste.

All of this means that shopping for a handbag can feel quite daunting. Quality bags are spendy, and no one wants to sink hundreds of bucks into a dud. Many practical bags are boring, but many gorgeous bags are cumbersome.

So how do you determine which handbag will be perfect for you?

Study your use patterns

Before you buy a new bag, give some thought to how you use your current bag. Go to a coffee shop and order something. How do you access your bag? Is it easy? Do you have to set it down on the counter to unzip it? How long are you rummaging before you find your wallet? Are you annoyed? Delayed?

Pay attention to features like zipper and magnet closures, interior and exterior pockets, strap length, overall size and bag shape. If your current bag has any features that you absolutely adore, do your best to track down a new bag with similar features.

Bring your stuff

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is absolutely essential: When shopping in person for a new purse, bring all of the items you plan to tote around in it. Do not be shy about removing the wadded-up tissue that is helping your potential new bag keep its shape. Get that stuff out, and put your stuff in. Note how your belongings sit inside the bag when it is on your shoulder or in your hand.

Does your stuff distend the overall shape of the bag? Does the bag sit comfortably against your body when your belongings are inside? Since you can’t run this test on a bag you’re purchasing online, be sure to check return policies.

Wear a coat

A fabulous reason to shop for handbags in fall and winter: You’ll be bundled up for the cold and perfectly prepared to see how your bag and coat will interact. A bag that fits perfectly with jeans and a tee may feel totally wrong when you’ve got an extra inch of parka padding on your body.

Even handheld and crook-of-the-arm tote bags should be coat-tested. Unless you’re buying a bag that will be carried during the warm, coatless months only, bring or wear a coat when you shop for bags.

Check the finish on the bag

Although pebbled and glazed leathers are relatively mark-resistant, super soft leathers can mark easily. Most faux leathers are relatively durable, but other vegan options like canvas and waxed cotton may show wear after just a few bumps and scrapes.

Check a potential new bag for marks acquired at the shop — a surefire sign that it’ll get dinged up quickly with regular use. Then run your hands across the finish. Does it feel sticky or tacky at all? If so, it may scuff up. And if you’re fine with that, rock on. Some gals like a worn in, patina-ed bag. But if it’ll make you irate, seek out something slicker, with a slightly shiny, dry finish.

Consider color

Most style experts agree that just about every woman should own a black handbag. But bags are a marvelous way to inject color into your looks, and an easy way to “wear” colors that might not complement your skin tone. Shades like cognac brown, red, tan and gray are always in style and fabulous neutral alternatives to black.

Think about the colors you wear most often, as well as how much of a statement you want to make. With that in mind, you might want to splash out on something bolder like raspberry, cobalt, kelly or citron. If you need a fabulous black bag, then seek one out. But if you’ve covered that base, consider some color.


Sally McGraw is the Minneapolis-based style blogger and author of Already Pretty (www.alreadypretty.com).