The Tote Bag
Fashion's Unbranded It-Bag
Words by Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
Everything starts on a metro platform, on some gloomy Sunday evening run to grab some milk and yoghurt. From there, it never stopped. Those canvas bags are everywhere your eyes turn to; those quotes and patterns on which it has been placed, chained to our contemporaries’ shoulders.
Lately, with the totally unbranded fishnet market bag being the most carried bag in the world’s fashion capitals, it’s safe to say we’ve entered an It-bag-free trend zone. Sure, the Célines, Guccis, Hermes and Chanels aren’t going anywhere, but there’s a certain subtlety that has come into vogue when it comes to our most statement-prone wardrobe choice. That said, women are also all mums by nature and we carry about five times too much stuff at all times, so while our purses might be trendy, bags are required to actually carry all our shit as well. And for those practical purposes, we’ve always turned to the canvas tote, the undercover workhorse of our wardrobes—after we’ve put our credit cards and iPhones into our miniature Jacquemus, of course.
Forget Hermès, Céline and Mansur Gavriel. On the streets of the trendiest cities, a canvas tote is the ultimate status symbol. Long a staple for students and lunch-carrying commuters, totes are suddenly everywhere. They come as gift bags at events and orientations, as sign-up bonuses for Web sites and magazines, and with purchases at some of the hottest stores. Companies, realizing the potential of turning customers into an army of brand ambassadors, are replacing paper shopping bags with branded totes. And by spreading the totes around the city, consumers can tell the world where they shop, what they read, the music they listen to and their political leanings — or at least an idealized version, by picking and choosing which bags they carry.
Suddenly I realised that while they're so common, a simple canvas tote can, in fact, say a lot about us. The bags can talk, too.
Indeed, as we flourish into adulthood, we enter a fine tradition of carrying stuff around in conveniently sized lightweight bags. But this transition can be daunting. There are so many rules about tote bags out there that it can be hard to keep up. I've, myself, recently come to an important conclusion: I'm a tote hoarder. Look into my closet, under my desk, and even under the kitchen sink, and you'll find them. Living in Paris, I find this simple bag to be indispensable. It's what I carry running errands on the weekend. It held my gym clothes when I ran from classes/library to the gym with my best friend during my year abroad. But when I finally came to acknowledge my own obsession, I started to look around me and think about the totes women wear. Suddenly I realised that while they're so common, a simple canvas tote can, in fact, say a lot about us. The bags can talk, too. Their ubiquity seems to whisper in your ear, as a bead of sweat rolls down your neck, a cool breath that says: “You don’t read enough.”
So, why have these complementary carrying cases resonated so well? How has a canvas bag bearing a simple, often bi-chromatic design become a beacon of all things “cool”? Thing is, with their emblazoned logos and quotes and drawings, and with the advent of swag and merch, the totes that somehow accumulate without purpose in our cupboards actually say a hell of a lot about the carrier. Many you can’t even buy and only get with, say, a subscription to “The Paris Review of Books” or “New Yorker”. Why, canvas totes are a status symbol within themselves. So, what does your favourite tote say about you?
Let’s take the New Yorker tote bag for instance. The allure of The New Yorker tote bag goes deeper than this (and perhaps that’s why it has lasted): trendiness aside, the act of toting promotes one’s perceived intellectualism, and thus, status. Yet there’s something sly and passive-aggressive about the nonchalance of a tote bag. It’s not like the person wearing one is striking up a conversation about a New Yorker piece he’s read and loved — he is, instead, more often than not, subtly inching closer and closer to you on the subway, jutting out his right shoulder, hoping you’ll notice. Though tote bags are an excellent form of self-advertising like I mentioned previously, Tote Law states that your bag must reflect your actual interests. From a handy Whole Foods grocery bag to a carryall from your favourite fashion line, the bags we choose give a bit of insight into who we are as individuals in this big wide world.
But people probably aren’t really carrying the bag to make a fashion statement. Its power resides in its ability to telegraph tribal membership. As a symbol, the tote is “more valuable than a fancy handbag, even if the latter costs more and is of greater material value,” wrote Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class”. “The tote bag is, consciously or unconsciously, a sign of cultural currency,” she said. “Reading the New Yorker implies the possession of rarefied knowledge, cultural awareness and refinement of taste that goes beyond simply reading about world happenings. The tote bag allows one to, even if not intentionally, broadcast one’s possession of such cultural capital.” And social media’s daily influx of tweets and posts, both reverential and sardonic, make it hard to tell whose affection for capital-L literature is real and who wouldn’t recognize “The Phonies” if Holden Caulfield himself pointed them out. Does it pose the age-old question: do you have to like the band to wear the t-shirt? Or can you just wear it because it’s black, and black is kind of your thing right now?
“The truth is if you’re not a New Yorker reader (either because you don’t like it or you’re not particularly aware of it as a publication), this bag will not convey cultural capital or any real value above being a cloth tote — which is very different than if someone owns an aesthetically beautiful bag that possesses valuable attributes without requiring a cultural context,” Currid-Halkett said. “The value of the New Yorker bag is what it signifies, not what it actually looks like.” ■