What Is a Tote Bag? How To Style This Versatile Go-To

by Sara Wennerstrom / Aug 31, 2022

As the world embraces eco-friendly choices, the tote bag has found its way into every shopper's car or hallway closet. High-quality canvas tote bags with witty phrases or cotton tote bags with printed designs are chic shopping bags worn by local farmer’s market voyeurs and small business loyalists alike. But that’s not the only thing that comes to mind when defining a tote bag:
There are designs that are similar in form and function, but made in materials and finishes that make them the ideal everyday accessory.


Discover style tips and tricks worthy of this highly functional handbag. Read on to learn more about totes — their history, what makes a bag tote-worthy, and how you can maximize this accessory’s potential.



What is a tote bag?

A tote is a large size bag that holds a good amount of items as you go about your day. It has a large opening and features two parallel handles that emerge from the mouth of the bag. Some models have fasteners at the opening, while others don’t.


Often referred to as carry-all bags because of how much they can hold, totes truly can carry it all. The quintessential canvas tote that springs to mind usually doesn’t have interior pockets — this is ideal for grocery shopping when you just want to quickly bag your belongings before exiting the store. However, a beautifully-designed tote bag meant for the office or a day out will likely have interior pockets to help keep small items organized, all while comfortably carrying work must-haves like a laptop and a snack.


History of the tote bag


A quick look at the tote bag’s origin story shows that it was practical from the start. These bags date back to the 17th century, but the phrase “tote” didn’t become popular verbiage until the 20th century.


It was in the 1940s that the “Boat Bag,” crafted from sturdy canvas, burst onto the scene; however, the ‘50s housewives are the true unsung heroes of the tote’s mainstream debut. They became the bag for errands before morphing into more of a fashion statement in the swinging ‘60s.


From academia to the world of athleticism, totes are now everywhere. And you’ll soon find out that the tote can play off your personal style and offers flexibility for maximum versatility.


Model with Maestra bag on shoulder during tennis

The Maestra bag in Pebbled Ice


What are the features of a tote bag?

The tote has a few features that are distinct to this handbag category.

  • Size. A defining characteristic of a tote is its large size. It’s what makes a tote bag a carry-all arm companion. It has to fit everything you buy on a shopping trip or while you’re out and about for a full day.


  • Straps. The two straps protruding from the bag’s opening are a classic feature, so you can easily throw the bag over your shoulder for a hands-free experience.


  • Structure. Whether a cotton tote at the supermarket or a leather gem you take on a museum trip, all totes have a similar structure. You can expect to find a large compartment and two big straps that fit comfortably over your shoulder. However, there will be differences in structure between the two: Those relaxed cotton totes are meant to be crumpled and don’t hold themselves upright, while a leather tote stands on its own.


  • Style. The style of the tote is where we witness a shift. Colors, materials, embellishments: If you’re shopping for a leather tote, a vast array of options await. Defer to your personal preferences, your need for the tote, and the occasion at hand.


A few casual cotton totes are the errand-run favorite, but a quality leather bag has defining tote features like spaciousness and large handles, but with an upgraded look that makes carrying the essentials for any occasion, from a job interview to a nice dinner, effortless.


  • Functionality. Regardless of the tote’s style, a defining feature is its practicality and ability to adhere to its utilitarian roots. Leather tote bags should still double as bags that can get you from point A to point B without a second one in tow.


Senreve tote on suitcase while traveling

The Gemelli Tote in Dolce Dove


What are tote bags used for?

Tote bags are life’s everyday accessories because they can carry it all for any occasion.

  • Work. A leather tote is a perfect work bag that can take you from the office to after-work drinks with coworkers. It’s roomy enough to fit a laptop and all of your other essentials for the day and night.


  • Grocery shoppingGoing back to its true utilitarian roots, the canvas tote is optimal for effortlessly bagging groceries in the check-out line. Plus, they’re a great alternative to single-use plastic bags that states are slowly beginning to ban.


  • Vacation and travel. A classic leather tote is a go-to travel essential for women on the go. The tote can act as your personal item on a plane or your carry-on-only travel companion for a shorter stay, especially if you’re a light packer.


  • Beach day. A day at the beach means having all of your seaside essentials on hand. A tote is large enough to accommodate your towel, book, sunscreen, and more, so you can relax for hours. Definitely leave your leather tote at home for this trip and opt for a reusable canvas bag.


  • Everyday use. Ultimately, a reliable tote is your best friend — unrestricted by occasion. The Gemelli tote is Senreve’s latest take on the carefree carryall. Its built-in organization enables you to seamlessly navigate the day with your essentials within arm's reach.


How to style a tote bag

Here are some current style types that work effortlessly with the inclusion of a tote bag slung over the shoulder.


Office chic

The office environment lends itself to business casual attire — an elevated take on the everyday look. Imagine blazers, blouses, smart slacks, and a ballet flat. Then to top it all off, add a leather tote to perfectly transport your laptop or tablet. You’ll show up to work confident that you brought everything you need for the day, and you’ll feel confident in your ensemble, too. Office chic and totes go together like conference calls and spreadsheets.


From cotton to canvas or leather, totes can easily work for a casual trip to the grocery store or an afternoon bringing the kids to the park. If you go with leather, keep it casual with a neutral-colored bag that transitions seamlessly into any setting. You’ll have enough space for the kids’ snacks and a blanket so you can lay out in the sunshine and watch them play. Pair the tote with sneakers and jeans for a laidback outfit.


The tote with a captivating screen-printed design splashed across the front is quickly becoming a streetwear staple. You’re sure to turn heads as you run errands around your neighborhood or meet up with friends for lunch. You can complete the outfit with chunky sneakers, a band T-shirt, and a denim skirt for an effortlessly edgy appearance.


The bohemian style of long flowing dresses paired with boots and a wide-brimmed hat works well with the tote bag accessory. For this style, you can opt for any interesting macrame tote to really highlight the playful and unconventional nature of the style. This can be the perfect look for browsing the local farmer’s market on a Sunday afternoon — gingerly place a bouquet of hand-picked flowers in your tote for the ultimate bohemian ‘fit.


The minimalist style is stripped down to the basics, so a plain canvas tote bag or a sleek, black leather bag is the ultimate minimalist fashion move. This style makes use of neutral colors; it shies away from bold prints and favors texture as the alternative for breaking up an outfit. For this look, channel the ‘90s with a ribbed-knit white tank top, high-waisted jeans, and black ankle-length boots.


Since the tote works well for the gym or a more active lifestyle, it is a great match for the athleisure aesthetic. Wear leggings with a sports bra and tote over your shoulder as you go for an afternoon workout. You’ll look understated and effortless while feeling comfortable and prepared for your exercise class — yoga mat and all included in your bag.


The summer is a time for lightweight apparel and an effortlessly put-together appearance. Channel this spirit with a tote that can double as your beach bag for days when the weather is just too nice to miss. And when taking your sundress for a spin, a leather tote makes for the perfect sunny day companion.


SENREVE model with bag across body

The Doctor Bag in Dolce Butterscotch


A bag built for your lifestyle

The tote is made for everyday lifestyle,
adapting to the needs of the wearer. It’s as multifaceted as you are and dynamic enough to withstand the test of time, thanks to its simplicity and timeless design. In that way, it’s truly unique.

And with Senreve’s Gemelli tote designed for the modern woman, you’ll have a bag that works with the seasons of your life as you run errands or head to a business lunch. It has plenty of room to carry it all — plus an internal zipper pocket, seven internal slip pockets, and an elastic cord to secure your laptop or tablet. Everything – and then some – is at hand with a tote.