The Goods

The New Yorker Tote Bag Is Not a Good Tote Bag

It’s stiff. The strap is too short. There are no compartments or pockets. It doesn’t close.

A New Yorker tote bag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Slate.

Following their World Cup victory, the U.S. women’s soccer team allowed us all to follow along as they glamorously celebrated—wearing sunglasses in government buildings, wearing power suits without shirts underneath, toasting themselves at every step along the way. At one point, co-captain Alex Morgan shared a photo of herself carrying bottles of golden Champagne aboard a yacht—in none other than a New Yorker tote bag.

That New Yorker tote! It’s everywhere. Since the tote’s debut in 2014, the magazine has sent the oatmeal-colored, heavily lettered canvas bag as an incentive to hundreds of thousands of new subscribers. Condé Nast’s vice president of consumer marketing has claimed that no matter where in the world he travels, he tends “to see at least one.” It has an Instagram hashtag, even its own Instagram account (bio: “the least exclusive exclusive status symbol”). You don’t even have to subscribe to the magazine to get one anymore; it’s available on the clothing resale site Poshmark for $65. (For the record, that’s many times the price of a starter subscription to the magazine, which is $12 and includes a tote.)

The New Yorker tote is in demand in large part because of what it telegraphs: You read the New Yorker, a fancy magazine without many pictures. You are sophisticated and non-frivolous. You might even know how to use the New Yorker dot com’s notoriously frustrating login. Boarding the yacht, Morgan is wearing silver heels, shiny pants, a drape-y camisole. That the tote fits into the ensemble is a testament to the status symbol it has become.

All of this has made me realize that it’s time to admit: The New Yorker tote bag is not a good tote bag. If you are one of the four people left without one, please consider my honest review and opt out. I used to have a New Yorker tote. I threw it out. Or maybe gave it away. I don’t quite remember how it left my life. I don’t really care. Because I did not like it.

To see and hold the tote in the flesh is a disappointment. The canvas feels stiff. It is not very wide. When I put it on my shoulder (I borrowed one from a colleague to reassess its potential for this very piece), the top of the tote hangs just below my armpit, like this—look how uncomfortable. It is awkward to reach into the bag’s (considerable) length to fish around for something. It feels like a tote made for a child playing dress-up, or a grown-up pretending that they don’t just read stuff they see on Facebook. It also feels like the kind of tote you get for free. 

The New Yorker tote also lacks any pockets whatsoever. If you bring the New Yorker tote to work, school, or, God forbid, the beach, you must throw everything into one black hole (though a black hole would imply that the tote offers a superlative carrying capacity, which it does not). You might say that it is beyond the scope of a tote to have lots of places to put things, that this role is expected of laptop bags and structured purses, not tote bags. But I’m not asking for the thing to include a filing system for Chapsticks or a leash for my keys. I do maintain that modern totes ought to have at minimum a simple exterior or (preferably) interior pocket. A colleague says she uses a small zippered pouch to corral things inside of her New Yorker tote, but I personally do not want to feel like I am over-functioning on behalf of my bag.

A couple more complaints: The New Yorker tote lacks a snap or other means of closing it, so it is hard to keep things even nominally dry if it rains, or even nominally inside the tote if you place it in the backseat of a car and turn quickly (since New Yorkers—the humans—don’t drive, this section of the complaint gets a mild pass). The New Yorker tote is oatmeal-colored, which means that it will show dirt easily. Someone with inside knowledge of the situation told me that the New Yorker toyed with a version of the bag that was mostly black, with a logo that was oatmeal. But this bag was never released to the public, because the New Yorker tote resists practicality.

Here is a photo of an Italian greyhound in the New Yorker tote. Naturally, the caption reveals that the dog hates the tote.

You might say that all of this doesn’t really matter because the design on the tote is nice. And I have to be honest—I double-checked with Slate’s art director, and she would agree with you. She added, “You can recognize the bag from a great distance, too, in spite of it being a plain canvas tote.” Sure. But if you evaluate it without considering the heft of the brand, it is simply, in my layperson opinion, fine. A plain canvas bag with black lines. What if this said not “New Yorker,” but “New York City”? It would be an object for tourists.

Look, it doesn’t matter that the New Yorker tote is bad. The New Yorker’s job isn’t to make New Yorker totes; it is to make New Yorker magazines, which it is rather good at. What is a crime is that we are holding this bag up, on our own shoulders, as if it’s not just a good tote but a good bag. A plea: If you are interested in adhering to common sense over trendiness, if you have groceries and bottles of wine and laptops you need to carry around, buy this slightly but meaningfully better tote from Baggu. The shape is also long and weird (or “stylish”). But it has a pocket, two snaps, and an adjustable strap, and, speaking from direct experience, it allows you to look at all the New Yorker tote people with a sense of deserved smugness.