Free Tote Vs Status Bag: The Politics Of Carry-Alls At Work

Free Tote Vs Status Bag: The Politics Of Carry-Alls At Work

How many tote bags is too many tote bags? I pondered to myself as I gazed around my apartment. Sure, there’s approximately four crammed onto a single hook by the front door: A tiny polka-dotted one that came with a succulent purchase from a flea market and looks suitable for a six-year-old and no one else, a sturdy canvas one from a local grocer inscribed with an exclamatory french phrase, an oh-so-trendy clear one I acquired at a 2017 press preview, and a simple black one emblazoned with the branding of a new yoghurt company. I lucked into them all free of charge.

In the kitchen, a pile of totes blocks the cabinet door from closing under the sink. These are the ugliest of the bunch and therefore relegated to lugging groceries home from stores like Von’s, TJ’s, or Target (if I remember to bring them, that is).

Then there’s the one dangling from my bedroom doorknob (a New Yorker tote, obviously); the seven that were clumsily tossed on a belt hanger in my closet (the highlights of which include a millennial pink one I should probably toss for prominently featuring a permanent fruit stain on the back and a startlingly Day-Glo yellow one from a brand I kind of sorta care about); plus the few I have tucked inside luggage, unseen but still lurking.

A semi-recent cross-country move absolved me of 20+ other tote bags that I KonMari’d out of my life, so my tote-bag-hoarding ways actually pale in comparison to what they once were.

While these are perfectly adequate carry-alls for Saturdays at the farmer’s market, it’s recently dawned on me that my rotation of canvas tote bags at work may be a questionable move at best.

Over time, these flimsy, cheap totes won out over my more work-appropriate bucket bags and mini crossbody bags because a) they could fit all of my shit and b) they weren’t exactly pick-pocketing bait—a legit consideration with an hour commute on New York’s illustrious transit system.

But has my choice to don a free, status-less bag caused professional judgment I’ve been blind to? Have I been passed over for promotions, missed out on bigger bonuses, and not been taken as seriously because I don’t buy into the notion that a designer bag shows I mean business?

Let’s investigate. For a trusted sartorial take on the matter, I asked Lauren Caruso, managing editor at The Zoe Report for her POV on the great tote-at-work debate.

“Because so many brands send their upcoming products in totes, I must have three or four dozen of them,” Caruso said. “They’re super helpful: A lot of times, I carry two or three totes that I fill with extra clothes, my lunch, my laptop—you name it. I used to try not to bring them to work events, but at this point, it’s pretty inevitable. I don’t think I’d ever wear one to an interview though; they’re too casual.”

As someone who’s climbed the ranks in the fashion publishing industry and held respectable positions at Allure, STYLECASTER, BANDIER, and more, I was curious if Caruso’s ever succumbed to the pressure to purchase a “status bag” for work.

“I would never want to make someone on my team feel less-than based on … what bag they’re carrying, especially with salaries where they are.”

“I’ve definitely thought about it, but only when I was much younger and more inexperienced,” she said. “Now that I’m at a point in my career where my work speaks for itself and I have a solid grasp on my own style, I wouldn’t buy an expensive bag to be taken seriously. I’d sooner spend on shoes, or a piece from a luxury brand, but more so for my own pleasure.”

Although she resisted the pressure to throw down $$$ for luxury work accessories, that doesn’t mean she didn’t witness her fair share of criticism based on appearances.

“At one of my first jobs, the EIC definitely judged editors based on their style, but usually it was less based on how much something cost and more about how ‘cool’ she deemed it,” Caruso said. “I look back on it and laugh now—it was so senseless, and I would never want to make someone on my team feel less-than based on what they’re wearing (or what bag they’re carrying), especially with salaries in this industry where they are.”

As Caruso spent majority of 2018 interviewing candidates for the relaunch of The Zoe Report, I asked her how likely a candidate’s bag choice would impact her hiring decision—if at all.

Aside from their actual work experience, I value a sense of style and taste level above all else, and an expensive bag doesn’t tell me much about a person other than how much money (or debt) they may have. I’d much prefer someone tell me about a new brand they discovered than walk in carrying a status symbol. I definitely wouldn’t mind someone carrying a tote as long as it seemed intentional, rather than sloppy.”

While it’s reassuring to hear that canvas tote bags at work aren’t a deal-breaker in a historically judge-y industry like fashion media, that doesn’t address the norms in other industries.

Lori Wenderoff, founding partner at California-based firm Wenderoff Law Group said, “I don’t think in my area of law a judge would care at all or even notice [if a lawyer carried a tote bag into court].”

However, Wenderoff said she personally prefers to use designer bags for work, such as a Prada or Louis Vuitton bag. “I’m looking to give a professional appearance and as an older, more established attorney, I think a cotton tote would look less professional.”

Beatrice de Jong, director of residential sales at Open Listings said, “I think there is a misconception amongst especially newbie realtors that they need to look or dress a certain way, but working in real estate is a customer service job. Millennials are especially concerned with a person’s authenticity and know it’s important to hire someone genuine, caring, and hardworking—which isn’t something an accessory can offer. Any good real estate agent would know you are better off investing that money into property!”

So what does this mean for the aspirational “status bag” of yore?

According to Caruso, it certainly still exists, but “it’s no longer the status bags of decades past. It’s the Loewe Gate Bag, or Paco Rabanne’s chainmail bag, or the beaded faux-pearl Shrimps bag that made the street style rounds during Fashion Week in September.”

“The shelf-life is shorter, but the styling opportunities are that much more fun.”

Well, there you have it folks. Yes, designer bags will likely always be a part of the accessory conversation, but they’ve evolved to become more of a personal flex—worn due to preference over professional necessity.

If you happen upon a work environment where you can’t proudly carry the bag of your choice, maybe you’ll want to think twice about working there. As for me, I think I’ll stick to flaunting my covetable collection of tote bags, thankyouverymuch.