From cell phones to Blackberries, notebooks to notebook computers, the days of stuffing one’s necessities into your pockets is long gone. I should also mention that having a bunch of gadgets hanging off your belt is really not an acceptable option either. Too many guys seem to feel their cell phone is the modern equivalent of a six gun or something. It’s not; it’s a phone, cowboy. Put it away.
I also have a lifelong appreciation for designs that respect a product’s utilitarian roots. Classic style has always done that because modern versions of traditional products are often based on functional roots. This is one reason that preppy styles are so long lived. The hallmark of true preppyness is the re-purposing of utilitarian items for everyday life: foul weather gear as fashion statement, prep school ties and jackets appearing in the office and that old steamer trunk great uncle Dan used at Yale is now a snazzy coffee table at the beach house. You get the idea.
A classic 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 original version was created as an ice carrier (back in the day when block ice was used to keep foods fresh in the ice box).
From these humble and practical beginnings, the bag quickly became recognized for its simple yet elegant functionality. Customers began to repurpose the bag for use on picnics and boating trips. It was the perfect tool for hauling tools, supplies and lunches on and off boats. L.L. Bean began offering the canvas tote in a smaller version and named it the “boat & tote.” It quickly became standard equipment on family boats across the Northeast.
So useful was this simple bag that it began showing up all over the place and quickly became a symbol of the preppy class. As others began to emulate this crowd, the boat & tote became a status symbol of the seaside life. In true preppy fashion, you never wanted one that looked too new. The more abuse it suffered the better it looked and others would then assume you’ve had the bag for decades.
As the Preppy Handbook points out, every New England family probably has several of these lying around the house. The L.L. Bean canvas tote bag has been liberally copied by many competitors. Its general design has even been reinterpreted by suppliers to some Manhattan brokerage houses and white shoe law firms. Their big logoed bags, given as employee gifts or awards, have become collector items among New York’s upper crust. Go figure.
It is not uncommon to see boat & totes on the Metro commuting to work with their owners. They have a neutrally sporty appeal and bring a bit of the outdoors to the office without being kitschy. Though you can find dozens of variations on the original, the mid sized L.L. Bean version is perfectly proportioned to hold everyday stuff along with a morning bagel, leaving your fancy Gucci or Hermes brief bag to deal with file folders and the New York Times.