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The Tote. A Bag that Defines an Action

The Tote. A Bag that Defines an Action

The Tote Bag. An accessory so intrinsic to the luggage experience that its very name means ‘to carry’. It’s the bag that defines an action: a bag that, perhaps more than any other, nails that fine balance between functionality and aesthetics. In short: a bag that looks as good on as it is suited to the brief, whether for business or day to day use.

Deconstructing a Modern Day Icon

Whether it’s made of leather, canvas, cotton or twill, one glance at a given tote and its uniqueness is obvious: they’re roomy, spacious, nicely sized, a looser and more casual offering to the Briefcase or the Backpack. Perhaps more than any other bag, the tote’s virtue is in its ability to reinvent itself. While never letting its function separate from its form, the tote has transformed itself throughout the decades, from humble beginnings, to ‘60s icon and beyond, all the way remaining a utilitarian with versatility and edge.

While the term ‘tote’ first emerged colloquially around the 17th century, folks have been carrying their kit around in similar two-strapped cotton and leather sacks for centuries, so the modern tote belongs to a much broader lineage in the carry evolution. The most iconic modern day tote prototype first emerged around the end of WWII, with American outdoor product manufacturer L.L Bean taking to market their inaugural ‘Boat and Tote’. Essentially, this was a large, durable ‘ice’ bag made of builders’ canvas, designed to make it easier to lug heavy ice from the car to the freezer. The shape, material, dimensions and style became an instant legend. 

Icon Status: 1960s and Beyond

When the mid-60s hit, the flower power generation was quick to embrace the tote as an egalitarian carry-all, a clear expression of the zeitgeist, and the perfect textile accompaniment to their looser fashion sensibility. 

The bag soon found itself in the ‘60s limelight – songstress and fashion icon Jane Birkin is often credited for helping elevate the tote to its loftiest heights. Birkin was known to lug around a roomy, cumbersome wicker basket through the streets of Paris, full of her books, cigarettes and day to day items. Allegedly, the star, seated on a flight next to Hermes CEO Jean-Louis Dumas, felt the full brunt of her basket when it spilled out from the overhead compartment, hurling her possessions all over the cabin. It inspired Dumas to create the ‘Birkin Bag’: a feminine, fashion-forward elevation of the original canvas tote.

Of course, original protagonist L.L Bean was savvy to the ‘60s tote trend too, launching fresher iterations of its hugely successful Boat and Tote. Staying true to its hard-wearing canvas finish, Bean kept winning crowds over with its refined, more feminine edge, adding fresh colourways that took the original ‘ice carrier’ to new realms. Embraced far and wide, the Bean tote inadvertently became a cherished piece of Americana, widely revered for its indestructible qualities, yet somehow only appearing better with age.

The Egalitarian Eighties

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the tote really found its stride as the ‘people’s bag’. Iconic New York City bookstore, Strand began to sell its own version: a basic canvas bag with the Strand logo in block letters, and its address and phone number. A similar rags to riches trajectory repeats here – almost more than the books themselves, the bag itself began to be a hot piece of Strand merchandise. To simply wear a Strand around the streets of Manhattan gave direct insights into the type of person you were: ultimately, that you were into books (and probably relatively intelligent), that you supported independent stores, and that you were a proud New Yorker. 

The beauty of the tote is that its ample surface dimensions meant it could essentially be turned into a walking advertisement – since the 80s, Strand has printed over 100 different tote designs, scrawled with messages and designs of all kinds, some of which amount to pieces of art in their own right. And weren’t the only ones doing it – the tote exploded in popularity afterwards, with brands all over the world embracing it as an essential piece, testament to its multifaceted usefulness, and universal aesthetic.

Totes Today

In traversing the globe and becoming a ubiquitous feature of every fashion and luggage brand catalog – even Ikea has claimed the bag as its own – the common tote has come a long way. Yet even though it’s claimed its fair share of glamour, it never stopped being a workhorse – first and foremost, it remains a bag with a purpose, and a job to do. 

A bag as timeless as it is versatile, Emigre pays homage to this staple piece with the Emigre Tote: the perfect accompaniment for shorter business trips and the daily commute. With front zippered pockets for important essentials, sturdy compartments for electronics and on-the-go bits and pieces, we put our spin on it with a highly abrasion, tear and weather resistant construction. Whether on the road for a meeting, or getting from A to B, it’s our most accessible, and all-purpose offering: the choice for all modern business travelers.

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About Cam Hassard - Writer

Australian-born writer, editor, journalist and musician, Cam Hassard has spent the better part of the past two decades in Émigré-mode living and travelling abroad, and currently calls Berlin home.

About Trinh Thanh-hung - Artist

Trinh Thanh-Hung was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, and at age three left the country as part of the boat person exodus.  Thanh settled in Switzerland where he studied fine arts and launched a career in graphic, product and industrial design.  He is a co-founder of Émigré where he currently serves as the Head of Design.