Are Briefcases Still Used? If in doubt, leave it out!


One Christmas Eve in the early 1990s, being the only member of my family who worked in the city, I was tasked with the quest of purchasing a leather briefcase for my father. The only stipulation was that it should be black and leather. I knew nothing about briefcases and I remember being really taken aback by how expensive they were.  

Briefcases, as commonly seen and worn in the 1980s and 90s, hard rectangular shaped, leather-bound cases are no longer as common a sight among the business or legal class.  Considered old-fashioned, these cases have been replaced by softer, flexible, more modern versions. 

After settling on a case that felt robust enough to be serviceable, and yet exuded a certain refined elegance, which I felt set it apart, I embarked on the 3 kilometers to where my car was parked.  Like a gladiator I proceeded to wade through the Christmas shoppers, carrying my prize. 

As I drew closer to my Swedish chariot, I grew battle-weary, the briefcase had become increasingly heavy, to the point at which it felt like there were cement blocks inside.  By the time I got to my destination, my forearm was burning and thirty years later I am still reminded of this injury every time I attempt the backhand shot in a game of tennis.  

The moral of the story is that briefcases begin with the word ‘brief’ for a reason; it is not just because of their relationship with legal eagles and the essential role these cases played in carrying lawyer’s legal briefs, but that they are rather too heavy, not to mention cumbersome, and only useful if being carried for a brief amount of time, illustrating in part the answer to the question: 

Man with briefcase

A Defining Case 

Let’s confirm exactly what is meant by a traditional style briefcase; a rectangular shaped, hard-sided, leather-bound carry case, finished in fine stitching, with firm, secure hinges and complimented by high-quality metal fittings in silver or gold.  The original briefcase did not have a strap, but rather a finely crafted handle which as a consequence of its smooth curves rested comfortably inside the palm of an enclosed fist. 

It is difficult to imagine today, in this modern age of minute smart tech and matching designer laptop sleeves, but in fact there once was a time when what color, style, or brand of briefcase worn, was an empowering symbol and distinguishing feature; to carry this indispensable accessory communicated the individual’s status and affiliation with a business or legal class. 

One cannot overemphasize the impact that a fine, rectangular case covered in glorious Italian leather had as a business accessory.  Right up to the late 1990s, did those captains of industry deploy the trusty briefcase, marching into that boardroom or courtroom, with a confident air à la Captain America and his Vibranium shield?   

The briefcase served any, and all professional interactions, it had the ability to support, protect and lend confidence, but it should also be noted that the wearing of this case symbolized a type of passive aggression that announced: ‘I have arrived and I mean business!’  In fact, for many, the briefcase was significant graduation present from law school and represented an accomplishment, symbolic of this rite of passage.   

New World Order 

The attaché case, originally named for its purpose, which was to protect documents being carried by French administrative, diplomatic staff, functioned similarly to its bulkier counterpart, but depicted a more refined elegance, in its fine, narrow, boxed frame.   Both the attaché case and the leather briefcase were once considered deeply aspirational; a type of pandora’s box of destiny.  The modern alternative, although referred to as a briefcase, is not at all as rigid as its predecessors. 

Today’s preference is for the much sought-after, slouchy, designer, business bag and is a more adaptable, flexible design which goes further to meet the demands of a modern lifestyle.   

This malleable, flexible style is championed by a new generation of technocentric, utility-focused, media-driven business leaders, legal advisors, politicians, and torchbearers.  The modern business accessory is a soft, tactile, flexible, utilitarian design, perhaps a metaphor for our modern sensibility, where reduced formality, increased accessibility, and fluidity are all key elements. 

The decision when making a choice between the traditional attaché briefcase, and a typical modern, soft grab bag or messenger style is very much dependent on the individual, their working environment, personal and business needs.  Consequently, the preference for which style to select is very much subject to how the individual defines themselves in the working world.   

If a situation calls for a reserved formality, such as that associated with the legal profession, then a conservative, hard-sided briefcase will support the role.  However, it is clear that the preference, even in this traditional profession, has changed, and the new soft, expandable, leather briefcase or rolling case is becoming a common sight.  In business too, where the choice predictably fell to the briefcase, the greatest change is evident and the old, traditionally coveted, hard-sided case, has morphed into a softer version of itself. 

Style It To Wear It 

The briefcase, commonly accepted as an integral piece of professional armor, traditional styles of which are still to be seen in the hands of an older generation of business and legal class, has been reimagined, redesigned, and repurposed in a softer, less austere style, as a secure and protective environment within which to house modern needs.  

The modern replacement, a soft, expandable, roomy version of the briefcase which is reminiscent of a style that was commonly seen in the hands of government employees, such as teachers, inspectors, or taxmen. 

This new modern alternative is lightweight, comfortable, in many designs expandable, accommodating the modern need for laptops, phones, and documents but it does not seem to instill that same level of wariness in the onlooker as the more traditional hard case did, which was in some instances a metaphor for its owner!   

We all know that brand classification can act as a type of gauge, with which to measure social stratification, which is not perhaps the ideal code to live by, but if you want to make an out of date or archaic look work, then one of the most effective methods is by buying into high-end brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes or Channel. 

No matter the decade, fashion, or sensibility, true quality and craftsmanship is timeless and absolutely never go out of style.  The fortunate owner of a legendary vintage briefcase can be sure that a seat will always be reserved for the individual who has the savoir-faire to sport a classic, timeless piece.  

The old adage: ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’ is sage advice.  Less is indeed more if you are confronted with a choice and confusion reigns.  Unless your leather, hard-cased, the briefcase is a Hermes, Vuitton, or of similar vintage caliber, put it back in your wardrobe where it can be of some use housing those shopping receipts.  Nevertheless, if you feel strongly that you identify with a briefcase, find a way to make it work for you, all things are possible if worn and presented in a tasteful, elegant manner. 

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John Cunningham

John is a writer, classic car and whiskey lover, men's shopping enthusiast and self appointed DIY expert. His greatest passion is repairing in the workshop, making old classics look and run like new again!

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