How the obsession with tote bags took over the world

Saúl Guzman bought a tote bag in 2010, which has not left his side since then. One day, while walking through a small London street market, he saw a bag with denim blue fabric, sturdy straps and a simple illustration of the Daunt Books bookstore.

Although he loved the bag, Guzman – who was a student at the time – found it to be a bit expensive at around £ 10. But he decided to buy it anyway after noticing “a really cool label” that said the bag was made by a nonprofit that helps people in India make a living while helping the environment. For him, this label transformed the tote bag and became not only a way to carry things, but also a way to express his personal style while helping other communities at the same time.

“The tote bag was almost like an investment,” Guzman said, saying that he loved how cool it was, but also “that it supported a local bookstore and that it was made with so much care and helping people.”

For many of us, tote bags are more than just errands; they have become an integral part of our daily lives, bringing us a sense of convenience and connection everywhere, from the grocery store to our TikTok feeds. Even the ever-fashion-conscious Carrie Bradshaw will trade her Fendi baguette for an NPR tote bag And just like that, that Sex and the City Restart.

The tote bag did not become a ubiquitous accessory overnight. However, over the past few decades it has become an indispensable bag for so many people, largely because of the simple, functional way that it allows you to express yourself.

The canvas of a shopping bag is a blank canvas. They can say a lot about yourself: which publications you read, where you stand politically, what you believe in, what you dream of or who you love. All of this can live on a single piece of cloth, neutral or cheeky, simple or complicated. The customizable, changeable nature of this accessory has helped the obsession last for generations.

The simplicity of a tote bag, of course, has its drawbacks, which is that it has no nuances, since it becomes easy to have the conversation without going the way. For example, someone might be carrying a shopping bag that describes them as a “feminist” but doesn’t really care about the problems 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 bag can serve as an expression of our attitudes and identities.

Even if they fall off our shoulders every five seconds when we wear our coats in winter, we still love them. They give each of us the power to say who we are in a practical and affordable way. Is it any wonder we’re obsessed?

“The tote bag fits in with a larger trend towards the democratization of fashion,” said Professor Dicky Yangzom, cultural and economic sociologist at New York University. “Originally these were textiles [like canvas] were intended for work. Similar to utility wear in fashion with the advent of the jumpsuit, it was not developed for mass fashion. It was more geared towards people doing more manual labor, wasn’t it? So all of these categories are shifting. ”

Today, tote bags are everywhere: as marketing tools, as merchandise for artists, and for designers to sell a more accessible accessory. A $ 6 “Avocado” bag for Forever 21, a $ 15 hand-painted bag from an Etsy seller, the free Vogue or New Yorker canvas tote bag that comes with a subscription to the magazine, and a Dior bag. $ 3,250 bags all fall under the same (pretty lucrative) category: According to Technavio’s market research, the tote bag market is worth $ 334.5 million.

“Luxury brands have taken up the idea of ​​the carrier bag themselves, this is how capitalism works,” said Yangzom. From Dior to Marc Jacobs, high fashion brands have designed their own version of tote bags, complete with their branding and upscale price range. “A shopping bag is one of those things that has broken through as successfully as this mundane, humble object,” she explained. “Tote bags are here to stay.”

One reason the tote bag is so durable is how the item feels. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m an intellectual!'” Said Nicki Camberg, a junior at Barnard College, referring to the traditional New York tote bag and others used to market literary and journalistic publications.

Camberg calls her own tote bags them “Tote bags for emotional support.The usefulness of a tote bag can be sentimental as it gives you the convenience of feeling prepared, but it can also be very literal as it can hold anything you might need. “I just need a way to have everything I have on me at hand at all times,” she explained, whether she’s running errands or just running around. “What if I need 20 hairbands and a pack of chewing gum?”

When she was a freshman in college, Camberg was drawn to tote bags for their convenience and how they got others to see them.

“I thought, ‘Well, my back hurts'” after carrying a backpack for a while, she explained. “And everyone judges backpacks very much, but nobody judges a shopping bag. I also had the feeling that I look less like a child. ”

For Julles Hernandez, a fashion author and stylist from Puerto Rico, also known as “The Bold Budget”, the tote bags she owns are statement pieces that complement her outfits and are fondly remembered. “I have $ 1 and designer bags, probably over 25. It’s my favorite thing in the world,” said Hernandez. (She even has an off-white bag named after her best friend.)

The carrier bag has symbolic depths. Yangzom explained that the vital aspect of the shopping bag has great value because of people’s ritual history. In the premodern, she said, people had very strong beliefs in religion and in what symbols were consistent with their respective religious practices. These institutions, of course, have not completely collapsed, but many people’s relationship with them, and certainly our collective values, have changed and evolved. However, the human need to keep an item expensive is innate.

“What doesn’t change is our need to believe in something and have our beliefs reinforced by an object or a symbol. Before, you might have worshiped statues or a photo or something, right, but how does that differ from the shopping bag? ”She explained. The ritual of packing our lives in these bags, taking them with us every day, feeling their weight on our shoulders, making their messages visible to everyone, has perhaps become indispensable for our everyday lives and our identity.

As the proud owner of too many tote bags, I have stories and memories for each of them. They represent parts of me and have given comfort to my college and post-college life by drawing on my experiences over the years.

My favorite tote bag looks simple, but the words written on it represent everything I dream of for my country Puerto Rico: República del Caribe: Libre, Mágica, Independiente, which translates as “Republic of the Caribbean: Free, Magical, Independent”. in big red letters, designed by an art collective called the Macondo Herald. One day I showed up at my godfather’s apartment with the carrier bag and his wife said to me: “You are always with this carrier bag!” I smiled. It has become an extension of me, a mirror of my identity.

The truth is that this piece of cloth, a simple sack with two straps, can always hug you when you walk around or explore a new place, with all its memories, with the power to carry whatever you put in and the ability to share a little bit of yourself with the world everywhere.

Nicole Collazo Santana is a New York City based journalist and part of the first cohort of the Vox Media Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, NPR, 9 Millones, and others.

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