Things That Last: The Classic Tote Bag

Things that never go out of fashion often seem to have a common thread. Sometimes it’s design or construction, maybe function or literal functionality. However, the one thing that tends to win out in the long run is utility.

If something retains an ability to do its job over time, it will likely become a classic.

This rule of thumb is as true for a stellar pair of handmade brogues as it is for Porsche 911. It’s also true that the very hallmark of American preppy is the re-purposing of utilitarian items for everyday life: foul weather gear becomes a fashion statement and prep school ties and tweed jackets move into the office. The steamer trunk that great uncle Dan used at Yale is now a snazzy coffee table at the beach house.

These are the sorts functional transitions which gave birth to a cliquish subculture which in turn has, of course, grown into a full blown lifestyle concept and aspirational style philosophy.

Perhaps the best example of this approach to life – celebrating the utilitarian yet inherently stylish – is the otherwise modest canvas tote bag. In many ways, it’s the epitome of the design axiom, function over form. Undoubtedly, the most famous version of this functional workhorse is made by L.L. Bean. More to the point, L.L. Bean quite literally invented the canvas tote bag category. Their iconic Boat and Tote bag was originally developed to carry blocks of ice (back in the day when block ice was used to keep foods fresh in the ice box).

From this rather humble beginning, the bag quickly became recognized for its simple yet elegant functionality. L.L. Bean started to offer the canvas tote in a smaller version and eventually expanding varieties and styles. It was perfect for lugging around sailing and boating items and the more abuse it suffered the better it looked. From there, the slow migration from summer cottage to city office was inevitable, and thus the WASPy affinity for this multipurpose wonder grew.

As the Official Preppy Handbook cheekily points out, every New England family has several of these lying around the house. In some ways, these canvas totes are a sort of status symbol. That you know what these bags represent – where to get them, the history, even the perceived lifestyle they imply – makes them recognized and desirable.

The L.L. Bean canvas tote bag has been liberally copied by many competitors, although none have been able to capture the heartfelt adulation directed at LL Bean’s simple tote. Indeed, collectors from around the world celebrate vintage finds via social media and in online preppy communities.

The workload-friendly design of the Boat and Tote has also been famously co-opted by Wall Street brokerage houses and white shoe law firms. Their tastefully logoed tote bags, given as employee gifts or awards, have themselves become New York collector’s items. Go figure.

It’s not uncommon to see these ubiquitous bags on the subway, commuting to work with their suit-clad owners. Neutrally appealing and able to bring a bit of the outdoors to the office without being at all kitschy, they are an office natural. The midsized L.L. Bean version is perfectly proportioned to hold everyday stuff along with lunch or a morning bagel.

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