All credits in the image –

It is impossible to find a person who does not own a tote bag. Everyone I know has at least one, but usually having just a single tote bag is an exception and most people have at least three different ones. Each tote bag is unique, it has its own design, own use and, of course,  statement, or  emblematic image.

So how did it happen, that such an ordinary accessory launched a huge trend and inspired a movement of tote bag wearers? Such a simple, square piece of cloth became the leader of the streets narrative and a piece that one cannot go without. 

First, what is a tote bag and what is its history?
Starting from the name itself, when we separate those two words, we already get an indication of  what the purpose of the accessory is – a bag, everyone knows what it is so hopefully there’s no need for an explanation, and the second part, the now used noun “tote” was previously more commonly used as meaning “to carry” something. So, this is an accessory that already indicates what  its purpose is: this is supposed to help you carry your things in addition to whatever bag etc. you might already have. Nowadays, we can see a clear emergence of this trend; people carry around various tote bags, sticking them on the bottom of their other bags and backpacks to help them carry grocery shopping or books to schools or workplaces. The bag is a helper. What’s more it became an attractive, ecological accessory for many shoppers wanting to implement some sustainable habits into their lives. People carry around tote bags, as a just in case accessory  which will allow them to do more, carry more, and feel more comfortable.

L.L. Bean tote bag, all credits in the image  

However, the practical aspect of tote bags was not why they became so popular initially. The first tote bag was not a tote bag as we know it today, but an “ice bag” designed by the American brand L.L. Bean. As the name already suggests, it was supposed to help carry ice, working somewhat as a portable freezer. The bag was released in the 1940s and due to its popularity it developed into a different design with the same purpose of functionality. Within the next two decades as tote bags became more and more popular, the emblematic brand – L.L. Bean, changed the design of the bag, adding color to the straps and bottom of the bag. Moreover, we should be grateful to the brand for introducing canvas as a material which can be used in fashion. They were one of the first brands that acknowledged and used this durable material to make it an attractive feature and something that people wanted to buy. So, around the 1960s more and more people felt the need to acquire this accessory and more brands realized how popular it was getting, creating their own alternatives. In the 1960s, the  brand Coach released, with the help of an influential but not so recognizable designer Bonnie Cashin, a designer tote bag, which has stayed with us until this day. What she brought to this design was not only the addition of leather to the canvas material, but also the transformation of a simple, made for functionality bag into a stylish, desirable accessory.

Designer Bonnie Cashin, all credits in the image

How did it happen that throughout the decades the tote bag became one of the most common accessories used for advertising and promoting?
In the 90s, when everyone in the fashion industry already knew the successful history of tote bags,  not only designers but also various stores, companies and brands started using them as a piece for promotion. However, one of the biggest influencers for making the tote bags so popular among various types of brands, is the most famous bookstore, which every New Yorker (and every book worm and New York City fan) knows – The Strand. The bookstore released this simple cotton, canvas bag and made small ads of its store visible on the streets. Marketing, that drives today’s world and how various items are being used, beginning with pens, notebooks and ending with socks and bags, depends entirely on it succeeding in becoming popular and desired by society. 

Let’s face it, the truth is that each and every one of us has many tote bags (if not many, I bet at least two). It is an intrinsic part of our accessory drawers, but how does it happen that we own so many of them? The tote bag statements. Let me draw you an image and you can be the judge whether this sounds familiar. You go to a famous, touristy place – a museum, an exhibition, a famous store or café and you see the souvenirs section. Naturally, there hangs a cute tote bag among the postcards, fridge magnets and keychains. So, what do you do? Obviously, the tote bag has a cute image or a catchy phrase on it, literally calling your name and even though deep down you know that you have plenty of these at home, you grab it anyway. It is not that you need another “helper” item to carry your groceries, but you just simply want it. This is the promotion strategy convincing you. However, my question is about something else, do those statements visible on the tote bags matter? Does it make any change or influence anybody who happens to take a look at this accessory?

It does. As anything in fashion, it makes a difference and creates an image of who you are and what you support, sometimes the garments that we wear even indicate what we do professionally. The same happens with our tote bags. Within them we show phrases or things that matter for us and make a difference for us personally. Maybe the tote bag somebody carries supports some non-governmental organization or is an element of any social movement. Maybe, it is not JUST a tote bag. 

Lush Tote Bag, all credits in the image

Even walking on the streets of Amsterdam is an indicator that tote bags matter, and we cannot go without them. All of us know, the University of Amsterdam accessories, they are already partially showing who we are – each person that sees a university tote bag hanging from our shoulder knows that we are students. I believe that nowadays one of the most popular tote bags is the one from the cosmetic brand Lush with a phrase saying, “Fighting Animal Testing”. Does it already say something about the person carrying it? Naturally, it depends whether the person carrying it bought it because of the mainstream trend or because they firmly believe and try to bring to life this statement. I want to believe that the latter is the case, however we all know that the reality might sometimes disappoint us. But going back to the topic, wearing a tote bag is an easy way to show something important and bring it to the streets. In the end – it is a simple blank canvas that every brand, store or us ourselves can design and create however we might want. Any image or any quote that we might find relatable can appear on them and draw the attention of our relatives, friends or even strangers, it can even be a great conversation opener. 

Personally, I own at least 5 or 6 tote bags that I am aware of and the rest of them are probably laying somewhere on the bottom of my other bags and drawers. I have tote bags from museums, schools I attended, some just with phrases that I identify with, and in general I own tote bags from various places all around the world. They are my helpers, my one and only item I cannot forgo. Because if those items remind me of good things and amazing places and moments, why not keep them close? One of the bags from my wide collection is from the Amsterdam based museum – Moco. The second I saw it; I knew I needed it no matter how much money I had on my account. It’s a light blue bag with a yellow subtitle saying, “Do epic sh*t”. So, my conclusion is, let’s follow this rule and collect as many tote bags as we want, use them for sustainable living, for expressing ourselves and supporting movements and our life choices.

Written by Julia Kaczmarek


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