Are you an English student bored in lectures? Why not play the age old game of ‘How many A Room of One’s Own tote bags can I spot?’ twitter / penguin uk books

Much like the trigger of World War I or the fall of the Roman Empire, historians have tried and failed to pinpoint the exact moment the tote bag took over Sidgwick Site for decades. But alas, as term draws near again, you can practically hear the angst of hundreds of humanities students as they are forced to pick between packing their Daunt Books tote or the paper-thin one brandishing a pseudo-radical slogan that they got for free at last year’s Freshers’ Fair, only to chuck them both in the car boot anyway, just in case. After all, as you (by which I mean: me) navigate this Brave New World of lectures and supervisions and tri-daily Sainsbury’s trips, a tote bag becomes a secret weapon of sorts; it is the easiest way to say something about yourself without ever actually having to say anything to anyone, ever.

The OG Toteinstagram / hiro.nishizawa

The term fashion statement has never been so apt. A black tote brandishing the logo of your favourite European art gallery (that you’ve actually never been to, but that’s besides the point) screams edgy more than double denim and docs ever could, whilst that classic New Yorker one is telling of immense cultural capital, even if it’s your parents’ subscription and you only like to look at the cartoons. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tote bag tells all, not about who you are, but rather who you want to be.

They would be more deplorable if only they weren’t so practical, offering rare joy as an accessory that is as fashionable as it is functional. With its lack of compartments and one-size-fits-all-sorts-of-rubbish charm, it is the perfect student staple, destined to be stuffed full and rummaged through, withstanding weather and wear-and-tear. In fact, a tired, tattered, greying tote is all the more classic.

And, in any case, their very ubiquity is a feature in itself. Are you an English student bored in lectures? Why not play the age old game of ‘How many A Room of One’s Own tote bags can I spot?’ (not a dig, mainly because I quite literally have one). Sure, they are the height of performative fashion, but isn’t that the point? There seems to be a refreshing honesty in their very artificiality that somehow makes them all the more respectable as a microcosm of the ultimate function of fashion: that is, to tell through showing.

Bonnie Cashin for Coachinstagram / coach

But where did everyone’s favourite canvas collectable come from? Formally, the tote bag was invented in the 1940s by L.L. Bean, marketed as a utilitarian ‘ice bag’, durable enough to carry heavy frozen items home from the supermarket. It wasn’t until 20 years later, when American designer Bonnie Cashin dropped the ‘Cashin Carry Tote’, that the item entered the fashion industry, with its eco-friendly textiles and practical, versatile nature transforming the bag into an emblem of the Flower Power and feminist movements, weighted with symbolic and political meaning.

And the rest is history, with tote bags today still speaking to an extensive push towards a more sustainable fashion industry, as much as to an - admittedly now largely exhibitionist - desire to politicise (‘On Wednesdays We Smash The Patriarchy’ tote, I’m looking at you). In recent months designer brands have hopped on the bandwagon, with Agnès b releasing a collection made out of recycled seatbelts and airbags from discarded vehicles. Not to mention the icon that is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who made headlines with her trendy tote bag, dubbed the ‘Bushwick Birkin’ by tabloid outlets.

“a tote bag tells all, not about who you are, but rather who you want to be”

And so, as easy as it is to be cynical, the tote bag is not all bells and whistles. They’re undeniably better for the planet than plastic bags, and offer an almost unbeatable, no-nonsense resilience. Anyways, there is something reassuring in the item’s collectivism, flexible enough to allow you to be both ‘yourself’ and just like everyone else. As an adornment fit for almost any occasion they are surely here to stay, and I personally make no (or rather no further) complaints.

Sponsored links

Partner links