It began in high school. A sort of social currency, at least in Australia that is. Fashion brand Supré which was known for cheap enough clothing that high schoolers could afford to shop there. (The older you got the more you realised the quality was awful.) But you didn’t necessarily shop at Supré for the clothes, or the Team Edward, Team Jacob t-shirts. (This was at the height of the Twilight craze.)
You shopped there simply because you needed to get yourself a Supré tote bag. Everyone at school had a Supré bag, some used them as school bags, a little ridiculous considering how little they held, for everyone else used them for the Physical Education uniform. The changing room was lined with tote bags, an unofficial part of the school uniform.
And now they are everywhere. The love of totes has expanded far and wide. Well beyond the reach of the high school locker room. It has found a solid and well-loved home on the streets of London.
It is almost a cult fashion item, distinctive and just as much a symbol of status as it was when we were at high school. Somehow one long rectangle of canvas with some kind of printed design is not only a handy bag but clearly represents your style, personality, values and even place in the British class system.
Tote bags are decidedly middle class. That’s just the way it is. Supré bags were not, but the casual beige canvas tote most certainly is. Everyone else has the common sense to pick something that will actually protect their belongings, or at least match their gilet (if they are upper class).
Just wander into the hipster streets of Shoreditch. Totes in abundance, totes for sale, totes slung over the shoulders of the shoppers in their vintage neon puffer jackets and trainers that cost upward of £200. This description matches both men and women.
Wander into north London and the West End and there is one tote you will see with marked popularity. The Daunt Books tote. This tote bag is just as much a status symbol as the Supré bag once was. For the intellectual middle class, nothing says, I am educated more than a tote from Daunt Books.
What is Daunt Books? It is an independent bookshop chain with locations around north west London. Beautiful books shops transport you into the home of all your bookish dreams, wooden staircases and small alcoves and stained glass windows. It sounds divine I know, and it is. And having a Daunt Books tote bag, whether it is the small cotton bag or the sturdy canvas one says, “Hello, I shop at independent bookshops, don’t mention Waterstones, and please unless you’re are reading Howl by Allen Ginsberg or the delicate musings of Rupi Kaur, don’t talk to me about poetry.”
Tote bags are also great political signifiers. Bring on the ‘Boss Girl’ prints, and the bright colourful, ‘Angry Feminist’ slogans. I have yet to see a Conservative tote bag. Tote bags and Tories simply do not mix. A libertarian may wear a tote bag perhaps, a member of the Green party? They own nothing but tote bags, but a Tory, never!
Of course, one of the great and practical joys of a tote bag is that they are easily compressible into a small space, and not made of plastic. And so, they provide a fantastic alternative to plastic shopping bags. In fact, there is nothing quite so smug as the feeling of returning from a grocery shop with tote bags filled to the brim with vegetables and a French baguette sticking out of the top.
This feeling is amplified 100% if you are returning from a farmers’ market rather than a supermarket.
Do I have tote bags? Yes, where else would I keep my failed knitting projects (one unfinished scarf I have only been working on for 12 years.) And what else would I cut up for strips of fabric, when at 10pm I decide to make myself a set of vintage cushion rollers?
Tote bags are trendy and multi-purposeful. It’s really as simple as that.