Even if you think you don’t know what a tote bag is, you probably do. Considering their ubiquity, there’s a good chance one or two (or three or four) have even crossed your path already whether you used one for grocery shopping or one was given to you as part of a promotional giveaway.
The fact is, once you start looking for them, you’ll see that tote bags are everywhere, from store racks and fashion ads to a shoulder near you.
But what makes a tote a tote, and what is a tote bag used for?
If you’re curious about the origins of this world-famous accessory, its many, many uses, and how it can simplify and up-style your life, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for your complete guide to all things tote.
What Is a Tote Bag?
What are totes? A tote bag is a simple shoulder bag designed for carrying objects. They’re sturdy, durable, and perfect for a variety of uses, from your everyday carry-all to your reusable shopping bag.
The primary characteristics of a tote bag are:
Where Do Tote Bags Come From?
In a very basic sense, tote bags have been around for centuries. Carrying, transporting, and even storing items in large fabric bags and satchels has long been a part of human behavior. The design of tote bags is very simple and utilitarian, so it's easy to imagine that very similar versions have always been in use.
That said, the tote bag as we know it today is a relatively modern invention.
In 1944, the American retail company L.L. Bean introduced a new product to its collection of clothing and equipment for outdoor enthusiasts.1 Somewhat unimaginatively called “the ice bag,” it was a simple bag designed for one simple use: carrying ice from the car to the freezer.
But its design would draw the blueprint for every tote bag that followed.
L.L. Bean’s original ice bags were:
- Square or boxy
- Made from heavy canvas fabric
The ice bag was a hit, and by the 1960s, the tote bag had evolved from a strictly utilitarian bag to a fashion accessory. Capitalizing on the unexpected popularity, L.L. Bean gussied up its basic design by producing bags with straps and bottoms in a variety of bright colors.
Around the same time, the fashion brand Coach tapped designer Bonnie Cashin to design an even more fashionable version of the tote bag. The result was the Cashin Carry. Made from fine leather and available in a variety of sophisticated colors, this leather bag helped to establish the tote bag style as an essential fashion item.
Over the following decades, other brands and businesses followed the lead of L.L. Bean and Coach, producing tote bags for use beyond toting ice.1 Notable examples include:
- The Birkin Bag – One of the most famous examples of the tote bag is the Birkin Bag. Inspired by French film actress Jane Birkin, this luxury tote quickly became an iconic bag.
- Promotional tote bags – In the 1980s and 1990s, tote bags took on yet another incarnation as promotional material. Legendary bookstore The Strand first introduced tote bags with its logo printed on them in the 1980s.
By the end of the 20th century, the tote bag had become one of the most recognizable bag styles in the world, a staple offering of diverse retailers from world-famous fashion houses to small-scale merchants.
What Can You Use a Tote Bag For?
As its origin story makes clear, tote bags are extremely versatile and suitable for a variety of uses. It’s the bag’s blend of functionality and fashion that makes it such a popular choice for so many people—and for so many different occasions.
The possible uses of tote bags are only as limited as your imagination, but some of the most popular uses include:
What Are the Benefits of Using a Tote Bag?
Not to belabor the point, but it’s worth repeating: the biggest benefit of carrying a tote bag is its versatility. After all, how long did it take you to get through the list of uses we just gave you?
But versatility isn’t the only thing tote bags have going for them.2 They’re so beloved because they’re so:
Stylish Totes That Go Where You’re Going
Now that you know more about the subject than you ever thought you would, it’s time to discover the ease, convenience, and reliability of a tote bag for yourself.
For the ultimate tote experience, treat yourself to BÉIS luxury totes bags for work, play, and beyond.
Our work totes combine chic color options with luxe, vegan-friendly leathers for bags that are spacious enough to transport your work gear from home to the office and stylish enough for cocktail hour after you clock out.
On the go? Our travel totes come fully equipped with features that cater to all your travel needs. With trolley pass-throughs that secure your tote to the rest of your luggage, built-in inflatable pillows for poolside relaxation, and removable laptop sleeves for when your jet setting is part work, part pleasure, they’re the perfect tote for touring the world.
Convinced yet? We thought so. Shop our Fall Recycle Collection to find the sustainable tote, perfect for you.
- "Fashion archives: a look at the history of the tote bag." Startup Fashion. 15 July, 2017. https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-a-look-at-the-history-of-the-tote-bag/
- Sharma, Vansh. "General Benefits Of Using Tote Bags." Viebly. 27 June, 2022. https://viebly.com/benefits-of-using-tote-bags/
- Sinead. "Top benefits of using a canvas tote bag for your shopping." Best in AU. https://bestinau.com.au/benefits-of-using-a-canvas-tote-bag-for-your-shopping