I've been a shoe gal for years. Years and years and years. And then for some more years after those years. I never thought I'd give a hoot about handbags because I never had. About six years ago, I hunted down and found my perfect everyday bag and I bought it and carried it diligently every day for the next five years. But sometime over the past year, something shifted. I have absolutely no idea why, but I took an interest in handbaggery after ages of indifference and have been slowly accumulating a nice little collection for various occasions and uses.

The accumulation has been extra slow because I am SO PICKY about my bags. I am easily irritated by handbags that don't do exactly what I want them to, sit comfortably on my shoulder, stand up to abuse, and go with nearly everything I own. Tall orders. And because of my persnickety handbag nature, I've figured out some tactics that make the bag shopping process more effective.

Study your use patterns

This is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. 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 do you have to rummage around before you find your wallet? Are you annoyed? Delayed? Does any of it feel awkward?

I have determined over the past few years that my ideal bag is a large hobo with a single magnet closure and at least one, preferably more, external pockets. The bag shown above was sold at Banana Republic in fall of 2010 and it is absolutely perfect for me. I can keep it on my shoulder while reaching inside, I can swing it around by those two rings that hold the strap in place, I can keep my phone in the exterior pockets, it has interior pockets for my keycard and my business card holder, and it is large enough that I can crawl inside and nap when I get tired. Or stuff my mittens or a novel or a can of soup in there along with my regular goodies.

Understanding how you use handbags will help you purchase new ones that will work for your needs.

Bring your stuff

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I want to cover all my bag-buying bases: When shopping in person for a new purse, bring all 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? (One of the objections to the LV Speedy - looks great packed to the brim with tissue, kinda weird with a wallet, keys, and sunnies inside.) Does the bag sit comfortably against your body when your belongings are in it?

Obviously, you can't run this test on a bag you're purchasing online. So check return policies!

Wear a coat

Unless you're buying a bag that will be carried during the warm, coat-less months only, bring or wear a coat when you shop for bags. A bag that fits perfectly into your contours when you're in jeans and a tee may feel totally wrong when you've got an extra inch of parka padding on your body. Even hand or crook-of-the-arm tote bags should be tested with a coat. Seriously.

Check the finish on the bag

Once upon a time I bought a truly gorgeous Linea Pelle bag. It was pale gray, buttery soft, and fit all of my use criteria. But it was made from such a soft leather that it marked and scuffed immediately. It marked and scuffed when I breathed on it. It marked and scuffed when I played loud music nearby. And, eventually, I gave it to a far less persnickety friend because all that marking and scuffing was giving me migraines.

Ever since then, I've been a stickler for finish. I'm no fan of patent, but have found that pebbled and grainy leathers are more mark-resistant than super soft ones. Many synthetics are durable and scuff-resistant, too, but not all! 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 - as it does me - seek out something slicker, with a slightly shiny, dry finish.

Consider color

I will go out on a limb here and say that just about every woman alive should own a black handbag. But I also see bags as 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 safe bets. And if you consider the colors you wear most often, the style and color of your coat and accessories, and how much of a statement you want to make, you might splash out on raspberry, cobalt, kelly, or citron.

If you need a fabulous black bag, then seek one out. But if you've covered that base, do consider color, won't you?

Are you a fan of handbags? Do you collect, or just love from afar? Any other tips for hunting down and purchasing the perfect bag? Do you buy online or in person? Any brands or shops to recommend?

Sally McGraw is the author of Already Pretty, a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.

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