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STYLE AND CULTURE

CULT ITEM: THE TOTE BAG

By Kasia Hastings, 13 July 2018

Menswear doesn’t exactly offer endless accessory options and like most of its well-established staples, the beauty of the tote bag is its sheer simplicity and functionality. From freebies courtesy of worthy causes to brands looking to use you as a human billboard and fashion’s more premium takes, the tote has remained a reliable staple since the 60s. Here’s how it went from its humble beginnings as an ice bag to a cult fashion item.
Canvas tote bag

Cool canvas

While the term tote (meaning 'to carry') can be traced back to the 17th century, the word wasn’t used to describe bags until 1900 and the tote as we know it didn’t actually materialise until the 40s. In 1944 American outdoor store L.L. Bean’s original Boat Bag began life as a simple ice carrier, but the style didn’t hit the mainstream until the 60s when the retailer reintroduced it as an all-purpose bag. The tote’s fundamental architecture has pretty much remained the same since.

The bag’s practical, uncomplicated and hard-wearing design quickly popularised it among shoppers and in 1962 its next incarnation, the Cashin Carry Tote saw it infiltrate fashion. Designer Bonnie Cashin’s pocketed version became one of luxury label Coach’s signature designs, firmly positioning the bag as an iconic accessory.

 

Luxe tote bag

On the rise

The 80s eventually brought Hermès’ bank-breaking Birkin bag – the original luxury tote. Since then, high fashion houses like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Burberry have continued to riff on the classic design with luxe leather updates. Elsewhere, statement bags like Balenciaga’s striped oversized iterations of the tote and its now infamous big blue Ikea-inspired carrier have established it as an important trend piece.
Orange bag

Streetwear staple

Unsurprisingly, with the lines of high fashion and streetwear increasingly blurred, the style has also become a key hype piece within the scene. While there's no denying cross-body bags are having a moment right now, techy all-black totes and limited-edition designs featuring in some of streetwear’s most-coveted collabs have elevated totes once again. High-end offerings from brands like Porter-Yoshida & Co, Y-3 and Comme des Garçons Shirt have also seen it recognised as a smarter, practical luggage option for steezy guys with stuff.
Clear tote bag

Branded content

The 80s also brought the original cult branded tote bag from iconic New York City bookstore The Strand. Fast-forward to now and whether it’s the name of your favourite label, band, book store or just your previous employer, chances are you’ve found yourself carrying a tote that is no longer a blank canvas. Sure, there’s probably a selection of corporate freebies that will remain at the back of your wardrobe for eternity, but for many people a decorated tote has become a valuable piece of merch and a way of making a statement in a similar way to the slogan tee.

Black tote bag

Pictures: Rex Features

Ethically pleasing

As well as being a way to show support for the causes you believe in, reusable bags made from organic cotton, recycled polypropylene plastic and even canvas (the latter does contain some plastic) are leading the current fight against single-use plastic bags. Our collective efforts to save the planet mean we now try our very best to remember to carry a tote when we shop, taking us full circle to the original grocery tote popularised by L.L. Bean.

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