The tote bag has gone in and out of vogue throughout the past century. 13-Smile/Getty Images

How the tote bag became the hottest fashion accessory around

Janet Nguyen Mar 19, 2024
The tote bag has gone in and out of vogue throughout the past century. 13-Smile/Getty Images

Newsrooms, musicians, bookstores and your favorite grocery store are all in on the tote bag as a part of their merchandising strategy. 

The popular supermarket Trader Joe’s, which boasts a devoted following, recently released a line of $2.99 canvas mini-tote bags that come in red, blue, green and yellow.

These bags — which shoppers report have sold out at their stores — are now reselling for hundreds of dollars on e-commerce sites like eBay and Mercari.

While “we’ve always toted our stuff” around, the term “tote bag” came into use in the 20th century, explained Clare Sauro, the director and chief curator of Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. 

People may be surprised to know they have more than a century-long history. “They’ve gone in and out of fashion, certainly. But I would say we definitely are having a tote bag moment,” Sauro said. 

It helps that the Trader Joe’s tote bags are affordable (at least at retail) for many Americans, even though consumer prices have risen in recent years. 

“Many people are feeling a pinch due to the price of rent, groceries, etc., but a $2.99 tote bag is something most people can work into their budget. I think most consumers are looking for the inexpensive item that feels like a splurge these days,” Sauro said. 

Sauro thinks part of the bag’s appeal is the element of “social competition” — owners can show off their ability to snag an item everyone else wants. 

Sauro noted that many consumers are gravitating toward tote bags because they’re concerned about the environment. These bags, in theory, are a sustainable option for consumers who won’t need to request, and then dispose of, a plastic bag each time they go shopping. It signals that they engage in ethical practices.

The tote represents simplicity

Sauro said totes were popular during World War II, when there were fabric shortages and restrictions on the type of garments you could make. That led people to wear simpler clothing.

“Women were encouraged to be self-sufficient (taking on work outside the home, growing a victory garden, or simply doing without servants) and large bags and totes worked for this new efficiency,” Sauro said over email. 

She also pointed out that gasoline was rationed, and Americans needed to tote around their belongings without a car, she said. 

In the decades that followed, public radio newsrooms and bookstores created tote bags with their own branding. 

“You definitely saw the popularity of tote bags in New York in the late ‘80s, in the ‘90s,” Sauro said. “Very often they were tote bags of the Strand Book Store and it had a certain snooty New York cachet to it.”

Sauro said part of the reason items like tote bags are popular at the moment is that we’re moving away from flashy, costly items toward more understated accessories. Think of the “quiet luxury” aesthetic that rejects ostentatious garments.    

“It used to be, ‘I need the really fancy purse. I need the really expensive handbag.’ And now it might be, ‘I have this limited-edition tote that signals to other people that I’m a fan of this company,” Sauro said. 

Enter the Trader Joe’s tote bag and other reasonably priced, logo-adorned items, like the Stanley tumbler.

Sauro added that some luxury items have “lost their luster” because it’s become much easier to acquire them. 

“Anybody with a computer and a credit card can kind of get what they want. So the excitement of having those very high-end things maybe has dimmed a little bit,” Sauro said. 

Tote bags are also functional, and Sauro pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed people to be more practical in their day-to-day lives. “I think tote bags fit modern life really well,” Sauro said. 

But not all tote bags sell at the low end of the scale. TikTok cooking creator Emily Mariko, who’s known for posting videos of produce hauls she gets at farmers markets, recently started selling $120 “farmers market” totes in hues of green and pink. 

While it’s unknown how much inventory Mariko had, her bags are now sold out. Despite the relatively high price, though, their minimalist design falls within the trend of quiet luxury, and they can be had for much less than a $1,000 luxury purse. 

“We’re drowning in stuff”

From a business perspective, Sauro says tote bags can be “a very smart branding move,” but the design has to be meaningful. 

“It can’t be just a generic canvas bag that you slapped your logo on, because nobody wants that. We are drowning. We are drowning in stuff,” Sauro said. 

There’s an irony in the proliferation of tote bags: They’re a symbol of sustainability, yet they’re being produced in excess. 

“Just the sheer amount of overselling and overconsumption of those bags, not for the purpose intended, kind of negates the purpose of having a reusable bag,” said Sonali Diddi, an associate professor in the department of design and merchandising at Colorado State University.

Trader Joe’s tote bags are partially made of a polyester blend. Diddi, who’s also a faculty member at Colorado State’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability, said that polyester is derived from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel. When burned, those fuels generate the harmful emissions that cause climate change

The remainder of the bag is cotton, which has also attracted criticism. A 2018 Danish study found that you would have to reuse organic cotton bags 20,000 times to offset its impact on the environment.

For conventional cotton bags, that number is 7,100. “Environmental impact” in the study encompassed a range of indicators, including climate change, ozone depletion, human toxicity and water resource depletion. 

If you are just looking at the impact on climate change, the number of times you’d need to reuse these bags goes way down. For organic cotton bags, the number is 149; for regular cotton, it’s 52. 

But journalist Elizabeth Cline, an expert on consumer culture, sustainability and labor rights, said you can’t generalize about cotton’s environmental impact.

“Cotton is an agricultural product, and it can be grown incredibly sustainably or it can be grown in a really environmentally damaging way,” Cline said.

She explained that gauging the environmental impact of cotton in terms of water use, for example, ignores that greater access to water is a great benefit to farmers. “It makes the land productive, it makes the farmers able to grow more cotton, it makes it so that they’re able to put food on their table,” she said.

But Cline said it’s good that people are thinking about how to buy cotton responsibly. 

“The age-old advice is — especially with something like cotton, which isn’t disposable — is to take that item and care for it and care for it for as long as you have it,” she said.  

Maybe you can go easy on collecting tote bags if you don’t need another one. Diddi said individual consumers should take a pause and think: “I have enough bags at home.” 

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