A few weeks ago, I met a woman who was carrying a canvas New Yorker tote bag. It became the exclamation point of her brainy-girl persona, and the effect was far greater than whatever forgettable purse she had with her.
Canvas tote bags are often free or almost free, but they can carry just as much meaning as a status handbag with a four-digit price tag. They’re instant cultural signifiers, conveying a high-impact statement about the wearer’s interests with little investment. It’s a laidback style that high-end designer labels are putting their own spin on, with everyone from Chanel to Calvin Klein and Céline cashing in on the appeal. Last April, Balenciaga released a leather version of the famously practical blue Ikea tote—it retailed for $2,815.
Candice Chan is a partner and creative director at Candice & Alison, an event production company that puts the magic in parties thrown by the likes of Oprah and the Toronto Blue Jays. When she’s not carrying a handbag by Balenciaga, Dior or Gucci, she reaches for a trusty canvas tote. Right now, that’s one with a panda face and ears she picked up in Tokyo and one that was a gift for guests of a recent Off-White menswear show in Paris, both of which remind her of amazing travels with friends.
Beyond holding special memories, Chan says that totes function as less serious cultural identifiers than their investment handbag counterparts. “What’s on the tote makes a statement of the person’s interests and experiences, whether it’s from an exhibition, from a party they attended or has a statement that they want to voice,” she says. “I love how practical they are, and they say a lot about the person who is carrying it. It subliminally means that they’re armed and prepared for the day, wherever they end up or whatever they end up doing.”
One of the first totes to give me bag envy was beige with black lettering that read, “There Is Thunder In Our Hearts,” which I later found out were lyrics to the 1985 Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill.” At the time, it seemed like every nonchalant girl on Toronto’s Queen West had one, and she definitely used it to carry cans of Palm Bay to the park. Who were these girls with thunderous hearts, and where did they all get these bags?
It turns out, they were made by Anabela Piersol behind the Toronto blog Fieldguided, who started printing them in 2010. Piersol has long since stopped producing totes (her husband has a permanent shoulder injury from printing them on their dining room table), but has many fond memories of their creations, especially this Kate Bush homage. “I think ours were popular because they were a bit of a wink. You had to know where the line was from to really get it,” she says. And I’m not the only one they made an impression on. “One of my favourite moments was when someone used it as the key identifier in a Craigslist Missed Connections post.”
So before you grab that old grocery store bag lurking at the back of your closet (or throw down on that transparent PVC bag you’ve been eyeing), consider the power of the status tote to express yourself. To choose your tote style, here are ten of the most popular tote categories, and what each says about you.
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The music tote
Unlike the concert tee, the music tote adds an I’m-with-the-band cool factor without compromising your Instagram-approved #OOTD. I wish I’d bought this one at Desert Daze last year.
Desert Daze Tote, $20, desertdaze.bigcartel.com