Saúl Guzman bought a tote bag in 2010 that has not left his side since. Walking around one day through a small London street fair, he spotted a tote with denim blue fabric, sturdy straps, and a simple illustration of the Daunt Books bookstore.
Though he loved the bag, Guzman — who was a student at the time — thought that at around 10£, it was a bit pricey. But he decided to buy it anyway after noticing “a really cool label” that said the tote was made by a not-for-profit organization that helps people in India earn a living while supporting the environment. For him, that tag made the tote bag transform, becoming not just a way to carry things but a way to express his personal style while helping other communities.
“The tote bag was almost like an investment,” said Guzman, saying that he loved how it was cool, but also “that it was supporting a local bookshop, and that it was made with so much care and was helping people.”
For many of us, totes are more than just receptacles for running errands, and have instead become an essential part of our daily lives, bringing us a sense of comfort and connection everywhere from the grocery store to our TikTok feeds. Even the ever-fashion-conscious Carrie Bradshaw will be exchanging her Fendi baguette for an NPR tote bag in And Just Like That, the Sex and the City reboot.
The tote bag didn’t become an omnipresent accessory overnight. Over recent decades, however, it has become a go-to bag for so many people, largely because of the easy, functional way it allows for self-expression.
The canvas of a tote bag is, well, a blank canvas. Yours can say a lot about you: what publications you read, where you align politically, what you believe in, what you dream of, or who you love. All of that can live on a single piece of cloth, neutral or brash, simple or complicated. The customizable, mutable nature of this accessory has helped the obsession transcend generations.
There are drawbacks, of course, to a tote’s simplicity, which is its lack of nuance, in that it becomes easy to talk the talk without walking the walk. Someone might carry a tote bag that declares them to be a “feminist,” for example, but not actually care for the issues women face in their communities. A tote bag with a slogan will not bring us liberation. But for some of us whose identities are inherently political, the tote can serve as an expression of our stances and identities.
Even when they’re falling off our shoulders every five seconds when wearing our coats in the winter, we still love them. They give each of us the power to say who we are, and to do so in a practical, affordable way. Is it any wonder we’re obsessed?
“The tote bag fits a larger trend of the democratization of fashion,” said professor Dicky Yangzom, a cultural and economic sociologist at New York University. “Originally, these textiles [like canvas] were meant for labor. Similarly to utility wear in fashion with the rise of the jumpsuit, this wasn’t designed for mass fashion. It was more geared toward people who do more manual work, right? So all of these categories are shifting.”
Now, tote bags are everywhere: as marketing tools, as merch for artists, and for designers to have a more accessible accessory to sell. A $6 Forever 21 “avocado” tote, a $15 hand-painted bag from an Etsy seller, the free Vogue or New Yorker canvas carry-all that comes with a subscription to the magazine, and a $3,250 Dior tote bag all fall under the same (fairly lucrative) category: According to market research by Technavio, the tote bag market is worth $334.5 million.
“Luxury brands have taken up the idea of the tote itself, which is how capitalism works,” Yangzom said. From Dior to Marc Jacobs, high-fashion brands have designed their own version of totes, complete with their branding and elevated price range. “A tote bag is one of those things that has so successfully — as this mundane, humble object — broken through,” she explained. “Tote bags are here to stay.”
Part of the reason for the tote bag’s longevity is how the item makes us feel. “It’s like ‘oh, I’m an intellectual!’” Nicki Camberg, a junior at Barnard College, said, referring to the traditional New Yorker tote bag and others used as marketing for literary and journalistic publications.
Camberg calls her own totes her “emotional support tote bags.” A tote bag’s utility can be sentimental, as it brings you the comfort of feeling prepared, but it can also be very literal since it can hold everything you could possibly need. “I just need a way to have every possession I have on me accessible at all times,” she explained, whether she’s running errands or just walking around. “What if I need 20 hairbands and a pack of gum?”
When she was a freshman in college, Camberg found herself drawn to tote bags for their practicality as well as for how they made others see her.
“I was like, ‘Well, my back hurts,’” after using a backpack for a while, she explained. “And everyone’s really judgmental of backpacks, but no one judges a tote bag. Plus I felt like I looked less like a child.”
For Julles Hernandez, a fashion writer and stylist from Puerto Rico also known as “The Bold Budget,” the tote bags she owns are statement pieces that complement her outfits and hold dear memories. “I have $1 and designer totes, probably over 25 in total. They’re my favorite thing in the world,” Hernandez said. (She even has an Off-White tote named after her best friend.)
The tote bag has symbolic depths. Yangzom explained that the vital aspect of the tote bag carries a lot of value because of humans’ history of rituals. In the pre-modern age, she said, people had very strong beliefs about religion and what symbols were aligned with their respective religious practices. These institutions haven’t entirely collapsed, of course, but the relationship many have with them, and certainly our collective values, has changed and evolved. However, the human need to hold some object dearly is innate.
“What doesn’t change is our need to believe in something and to have our beliefs solidified by an object or a symbol. So before, maybe you worshiped statues or a photograph or something, right, but how is that any different from the tote bag?” she explained. The ritual of packing our lives into these bags, taking them with us daily, feeling their weight on our shoulders, having their messages visible to all perhaps has become essential to our every day and to our identities.
As a proud owner of too many tote bags, I have stories and memories for each of them. They represent parts of me and have brought comfort to my college and post-college life, weaving in my experiences through the years.
My favorite tote bag looks simple, but the words written on it represent everything I dream of for my country of Puerto Rico: República del Caribe: Libre, Mágica, Independiente, which translates to “Republic of the Caribbean: Free, Magical, Independent” in large red letters, designed by an art collective called Macondo Herald. One day at my godfather’s apartment, I showed up with the tote bag and his wife said to me, “You’re always with that tote bag!” I smiled. It has become an extension of me, a reflection of my identity.
The truth is this piece of fabric, a simple sack with two straps, can always hug you as you walk around or as you explore a new place, with all its memories, with the strength to carry anything you put inside it, and the ability to share a little bit of yourself with the world anywhere you go.
Nicole Collazo Santana is a New York City-based journalist and a part of the first cohort of the Vox Media Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, NPR, 9 Millones, and more.