Even by regular manbag standards the tote has some baggage. For the longest time, it was a woman’s bag. A purse. Not something many men would happily carry their laptop or gym kit in, despite its Tardis-like dimensions. The handbag hang-up passed, but even then, this was a type of bag that few could get excited about.
It’s the crappy freebie handed out in conference halls and farmer’s markets, seemingly made out of recycled tea towels. Or at the other end of the scale, it’s Balenciaga’s gigantic blue tote, “inspired” by Ikea’s polypropylene shopper but costing £1600.
But those extremes don’t do the tote bag justice, says James Doidge, head of menswear design at Marks & Spencer. “The tote bag is the ultimate easy accessory, versatile both in style and practicality and can be worn with everything from casual to formal looks,” he says.
We’d have to agree. Maybe not quite as versatile as a backpack or as utilitarian as a cross-body bag, the best tote bags are, nevertheless, more stylish than either and probably pack away more of your everyday cargo to boot. Pick the right one and it can be you work bag, your gym bag and your grocery bag all in one, though we don’t recommend you stow sweat-sodden shorts and post-gym pack of chicken at the same time.
There are degrees of formality to choose from. At one end there’s the simple canvas shopper, durable, useful and easy to throw in a cupboard. At the other end are fine leather totes with satin-lined compartments that deserve better than your overflowing leftover pasta. You can spend a tenner or your can spend 100 times that.
Whatever your budget, it’s a style that works with a range of outfits. “They’re perfect dressed down with jeans, a jumper and trainers at the weekend, or as an everyday bag for the working week, paired with tailored trousers, monk straps and a shirt,” says Doidge.
So which one to shoulder? First, check what bags you already have in your rotation. If you have a trusty gym bag, perhaps go formal. Or there’s already a fine briefcase in your 9-5 wardrobe, get something better suited to the weekend. Whatever your cargo, one of the styles below will work.
The Everyday Shopper
Cheap and spacious but also tough enough to handle the big weekly shop, this is the most versatile kind of tote bag. Because, as well as its practicality, it can also be a style statement. Buy one with a big logo and it will advertise your favourite brands or political affiliations, get a patterned one and you can lean into a trend without breaking the bank.
Look for a thick twill or canvas to ensure it doesn’t get battered but be aware that most shopper styles won’t have a zipper or magnetic closure at the top. You’ll have to pay more attention to keep out rain drops or light-fingered crooks.
Wear it with: jeans, casual jackets or summer gear. Nothing too tailored
The Luxury Man Bag
If you work in a competitive workplace, accessories have a little built-in Patrick Bateman-style one-upmanship. The shoes, the tie, the tastefully thick business card and yes, the bag, can all bestow a little boardroom braggadocio. Exec-level tote bags aren’t cheap but they are beautiful. Look for premium leather, Italian craftsmanship and padded laptop compartments. And don’t forget some subtle (or not-so-subtle) designer branding to casually wave in front of your office frenemies.
Wear it with: your bespoke suit and Northampton-made Oxfords, obviously. Or the rest of your business-casual wardrobe
The Two-In-One Tote
One issue with a lot of tote bags is that unless they have long looping handles or a separate strap, they are no more hands-free than a briefcase. This hybrid style is the answer. Featuring backpack-style shoulder straps that tuck away into an outside pocket when you’re not using them, you can sling it on your back if you have a coffee to carry. The multi-functionality means they tend to be a little more casual in style, but you can also expect bonus pockets and compartments as you would with a backpack.
Wear it with: smart-casual outfits, such as cropped trousers paired with a shirt and jacket
The Weatherproof Carryall
You could call this one a bag for life because utility is the primary objective. Usually made from a scratch- or waterproof material, these tote bags are designed to cart everything you might need for 24 hours in the city. Lightweight and minimalist styling means they go with everything and there’s enough volume to carry your lunch, your iPad, your gym kit and more. Better looking than your average Tesco one, too.
Wear it with: pretty much anything, especially slick city gear, from selvedge denim to smart raincoats
The Street-Style Shopper
If you’re into streetwear but can’t get all your stash into a cross-body, supersize your saddlebag with a tote that’s big on size, colour, volume and impact. Echoing wider streetwear trends, these tote bags tend to be oversized, feature bold logos and have far more space than you need – unless you’re taking your bedding to the laundrette. Brace yourself for high price points and nudge-nudge ironic details if you’re going with a designer label.
Wear it with: loud and proud street-influenced outfits such as oversized sportswear and the scumbro trend
The Beach Bag
It’s not exactly a must-have purchase but beach bros, busy fathers and seaside peacocks will all get use from a tote bag designed for shore. Besides, resort wear is so well designed these days that it’s no hardship investing in one. Go for minimal styling if you’re likely to head for lunch at a beach bar or opt for a bold print because they’re always easier to pull off at the coast anyway. Also look for must-have features like a zipped internal pocket, but be aware that no matter how technical the bag, you’ll be carting some sand home with you.
Wear it with: tailored swim shorts and a tee