The Classic Tote Bag

Objects that never seem to go out of fashion often have a common thread.  Be it design or construction, function or functionality, the one thing that tends to win out in the long run is utility.

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

And the hallmark of the true preppy aesthetic 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 functional transitions which gave birth to cliquish subculture which in turn has, of course, grown into a full blown lifestyle concept.

A great example of this approach to life – utilitarian yet stylish – is the canvas tote bag. The most famous version of this functional workhorse is made by L.L. Bean. In fact, L.L. Bean literally invented the canvas tote bag category. The 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 these humble beginnings, 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 called it the “boat & tote.” It was perfect for lugging around sailing and boating items and the more abuse it suffered the better it looked. So began the WASPy affinity for this multipurpose wonder.

As the Official Preppy Handbook cheekily pointed 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. The basic design has even been reinterpreted by suppliers to Wall Street brokerage houses and white shoe law firms. Their logoed bags, given as employee gifts or awards, have become New York collector’s items. Go figure.

It is not uncommon to see these iconic bags on the subway, commuting to work with their owners. They are neutrally appealing and bring a bit of the outdoors to the office without being at all kitschy. The midsized L.L. Bean version is perfectly proportioned to hold everyday stuff along with lunch or a morning bagel.

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