A short history of the tote bag

Tote bag

The tote bag has come from very humble beginnings to be an important accessory in the portfolio of most designer brands. The etymology of the word tote is “to carry” and can be traced back to the 17th century. However, the tote bag has been an essential part of fashion history ever since people had something precious they needed to carry. The first tote bags were pouches worn around the waist. Although they had a practical use they could be embellished with embroidery or jewels and were used as a sign of a person’s status and wealth.

The tote is a large bag with parallel handles attached to the side, made of sturdy, strong cloth to enable it to perform the various hardworking tasks asked of it. Today, tote bags are available in many different colours and shapes, to carry paperwork, electronics, shopping, gym gear, to suit most personalities and occasions. But at the heart of it all is a bag that you need to have with you whenever you leave the house.

The tote bag that we recognise today has its origins in the 1940s when US company LL Bean created their first bag for carrying ice and wood. This sturdy, practical, canvas “ice bag” was made to last. 20 years later, the company reintroduced the bag, now known as the boat bag, with the same form but with coloured trim for the first time. The Boat Bag remains a staple, now available in many different colours, sizes and finishes but with the original “ice bag” structure still in place.

In the 1960s, creators were designing all varieties of tote bags to demonstrate the evolving sense of political and social awareness. Designer Bonnie Cashin created her Cashin carry tote. Big, bold and beautiful, it fitted in well with the bright and colourful fashions of the time. Cashin later moved to leather goods brand Coach and to this day their luxury tote bags are inspired by her vivacious designs from the 60s.

In the 1980s, New York bookshop The Strand introduced a new version of the tote. Similar to the bag we know and love today, this had a softer structure and was created from natural cotton canvas with the purpose of carrying items purchased in store. With the name of the shop printed in bright red on the front, this was one of the first tote bags to be used for advertising, and it worked. The bags are still sold today and have evolved to include different prints, shapes and designs but every tote bag continues to have the shop’s iconic red label attached.

In 1983, British actress Jane Birkin was on a flight from Paris, seated next to the chief executive of Hermes. Conversation ensued after the contents of Birkin’s straw handbag spilled to the floor. She described her fruitless searches for a carry-everything-in-one-bag, bigger than the Kelly and smaller than a suitcase. The Birkin bag was born.

This first high-end designer tote bag was in a league of its own in terms of design and luxury. Beautiful and functional, the Birkin opened up new markets and customers to Hermes. Although not an initial hit, possibly due to its extravagant cost, it became a favourite during the It-bag era in the 1990s. There are now an estimated 200,000 Birkins in circulation. Available in a vast array of colours and animal skins, prices start at an eye-watering £5,600.

ReTweed’s Bordersbags project aims to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that get used in the community and to divert textile waste from landfill. The Bordersbag is made from pre-loved curtains donated by the people of Berwickshire. There is a wide range of fabric designs and colours available and, in keeping with the original tote, the bags are strong, functional, versatile, capacious and beautiful. As one of the makers of the Bordersbag, I hope that we are creating a product that will change how our community thinks about environmental and social issues and provide solutions for some of these.

The tote bag has grown up and evolved over the years. It has tried out different fashion trends, some which worked, and some that didn’t. However, we like to think, that just like ReTweed, the tote bag has gained confidence with age and its values, personality and strengths continue to shine through and stay true throughout.

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