The Anatomy Of An Awesome Tote Bag

Each bag in our closets serves a different purpose — a casual crossbody for the weekends, a cool clutch for going out, a weekender for short getaways. But perhaps the most important bag in our arsenal is that go-to carryall tote bag. Totes tend to get more mileage than any cute yet unpractical crossbody or clutch, and they need to be able to stand up to the challenge. Forget snapping handles, breaking zippers, or fraying holes — ain’t nobody got time for that.

We all have enough standard canvas totes lying around from this or that, but we’re talking about a grown-up tote here — not the one you got at your cousin’s wedding. A good tote needs to be sturdy, versatile, practical, and good-looking to boot. After all, if you’re going to be carrying it to and from work every day, it can’t be just any raggedy old thing. And often, what you’re holding inside is more expensive than the bag itself — like your laptop, first and foremost — and needs to be protected.

So to help you find the tote that perfectly suits your lifestyle, we’ve broken them down from top to bottom. Click on for our picks and to formulate the bag that works best for you.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
One of the defining components of a tote, the handle can make or break a bag. Figure out which type of handle suits you best: short, standard, wide, or detachable.
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Short Handle
This neutral tote has a handle on the smaller side — it's easy to carry at the bend of your arm, but doesn't quite fit over the shoulder. Likely the most chic but less practical option, the short handle looks great but might get old if your bag is super-heavy or you need to carry it for long distances.
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Standard Handle
The standard handle option is just long enough to fit snuggly over the shoulder for hands-free toting. It's helpful to try on a bag that you plan to carry over the shoulder, just to make sure it's not too tight or too loose and that the strap is gentle enough on bare skin.
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Wide
Rather than having handles attached to the top center of the bag, some, like this one, have a single wider-set handle that attaches to either end of the top. Some people may find a wider-set handle more comfortable to carry up the arm. Not to mention, it’s a stylish change from the traditional tote-bag handles.
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Short Handle With Long Detachable Strap
Versatility, people. To truly get the most out of your tote, try one with the option of a short or a long handle. Carry it with the short one on lighter days, and strap it across your body while you're traveling.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Depending on how organized you need to be, pick pockets that fit what you normally end up carrying day-to-day. If it's mostly large items, you can get away with fewer pockets. If you end up hoarding a bunch of ChapSticks, keys, or electronics, look for plenty of inside and outside pockets in a variety of sizes and with different closures.
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Outside Pockets
Pockets are arguably one of the most important aspects of a tote bag. As far as this writer is concerned, a tote should have at least one outside and one interior pocket. This minimal tote has the perfect outside pocket for easy MetroCard access, and one on the inside for other essentials that you want to keep a little more secure.
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Inside Pockets
Nothing beats a Dagne Dover tote when it comes to next-level interior pockets. These can make even the messiest person seem organized. With compartments for everything from your laptop to your wallet to your water bottle, this bag will keep everything in its place.
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Detachable Inside Pouch
Another no-fail option when it comes to pockets is a tote with a detachable clutch or pouch, such as the highly coveted Mansur Gavriel tote. Carry your heavier load when you need to, and just pop out your pouch of essentials for brunch or a quick trip to the bodega.
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Totally Collapsible
This Proper Assembly bag is unique in that its outside pocket does more than meets the eye. You can actually collapse the entire tote down to fit inside of it, making it ideal to toss in your weekend carry-on if you plan to do a little extra shopping.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
When it comes to tote bags, size matters. Take mental note of what you tend to carry day-to-day, and pick a size accordingly.
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Mini Tote
This mini tote is great for a book or a tablet. It's a nice alternative to a crossbody, but isn't necessarily a daily carryall for transporting your laptop to and from work.
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Standard Size
A reliable option is this one that fits a standard laptop plus a few extras, like a makeup bag, water bottle, and other books or magazines. This silver style from Aritzia will never let you down.
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Oversized
If you’re a bit of a schlepper, try a chic oversized tote, à la Mary-Kate and Ashley. Just don’t over-stuff it, or your back will not be thanking you later.
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Don’t overlook the closure on a tote bag. An open tote may seem like a nice idea — no fumbling with a zipper or buckle to get to your stuff! — but, depending on where you live, you may need a little more protection for crowded streets, train rides, and even extreme weather.
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Zipper Closure
For the most security, go for a zipper that spans the entire width of the tote. Not to mention, with this one, you won’t have to worry about the dreaded accidental bag dump-out if it tips over.
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Button Closure
The happy medium is a tote with a single button closure that keeps things in place without completely closing them off. Your laptop feels safe, but you can still slide your water bottle out easily for a quick gulp.
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Buckle Closure
And just because the more options, the better...maybe the buckle closure is your style. It definitely adds a nice visual detail, especially in a color that contrasts with the rest of the bag.
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No Closure
You don’t want just anyone reaching into your tote. But if that isn’t a concern (say, for the beach or a picnic), this open-top tote is a casual and cute option.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What's most important to you in a tote? Durability? Flexibility? Holding its shape? Choose your bag material wisely so that it suits your needs and matches effortlessly with most of your wardrobe.
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Leather
You can’t go wrong with a classic real or faux-leather tote. It’s durable, chic, and gets even better with age as it wears in. Not to mention, it defies the seasons and suits a variety of style personas.
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Suede
Suede is a sweet option for fall, especially in an autumnal hue like a rusty orange or deep green. Stick with a neutral so that it goes with everything, or try a pop of blue or pink to mix things up.
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Twill
This bag's fabric is a less expensive, soft yet durable alternative to leather and suede. This one is actually reversible, which is a great trait for a tote. It’s easy to get sick of a bag when you carry it every day, so to have a two-in-one option is pretty amazing — you can switch it up depending on what you’re wearing or how you’re feeling on any given day.
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Canvas
Long live the canvas tote. Perfect for the commute or the beach, this easily machine-washable tote is a go-to, for good reason. While most leathers and other materials are spot-clean only, this one can go through the wringer and still come out of the wash looking brand new, which adds to the bag’s lifespan.
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