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What is a tote bag?

What is a tote bag?

In a nutshell

A tote bag is an everyday accessory with a pair of handles at the top. They range from the canvas shoppers you get in bookshops to premium versions that can replace a backpack or briefcase. They’re particularly good for commuters. “They don’t have lots of straps, compartments or fastenings,” says Thread stylist Kasia, “so they’re great for getting stuff in and out of when you’re on the move.”


In the 1940s, US outdoors brand LL Bean created a bag for transporting the ice cut from frozen lakes to indoor chillers, without it melting all over your car. The Ice Carrier was made from heavy canvas with handles and a double-layered base, to keep water from getting out. It turned out to do as good a job at stopping water getting in and soon became its customers’ go-to for lugging home their shopping, too.

The bag’s simplicity also appealed to designers, who quickly reimagined it in a wealth of fabrics and shades. Modern takes range from rubberised cotton to luxury leathers. “Look for water-resistant materials like leather, nylon or waxed twill,” says Kasia. “They’re ideal in between seasons for stowing layers, but that does mean they’re likely to get caught in the rain.”

How to wear it well

“They were adopted by bookshops in New York in the 1980s, so have a slightly arty vibe,” says Kasia. “That makes them a bit more relaxed, even when they’re made from smart materials. They’re good for more confident men, as they’re more noticeable than something like a backpack. But because they’ve got such a varied history, they’re really versatile and look as good with a suit as they do with jeans. Just stick to plain designs without too much pattern or colour. And don't overfill it – they're better for carrying essentials than your gym kit.”