One Thing: L.L.Bean Canvas Totes

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As many of you know, I have written a fair amount about men’s bags. To me, there really is no issue about it anymore; guys need some kind of bag to hold all their stuff – wallets, Blackberry, mobile phone, notebooks, etc.

I also have a lifelong appreciation for designs that respect or pay homage to a product’s utilitarian roots. Classic and traditional styles have always done that. The hallmark of true preppy-ness is the re-purposing of utilitarian items for everyday life; foul weather gear is now a fashion statement, prep school ties and jackets appearing in the office, and the steamer trunk great uncle Dan’s 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 of the bag 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 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 preppy affinity for this multipurpose wonder.

As The Official Preppy Handbook pointed out, every New England family probably has several of these lying around the house. In some ways, these canvas totes are a sort of status symbol. The fact that you really need to 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 general design of the bag has even been reinterpreted by suppliers to some Manhattan brokerage houses and white shoe law firms. Their logoed bags, given as employee gifts or awards, have become New York chic collector items. Go figure.

It is not uncommon to see these bags on the Metro 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, leaving your fancy Gucci or Hermes brief bag to deal with file folders and the New York Times.


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Chris Hogan, an association executive based in Washington, D.C., blogs at OffTheCuffDC.com. A lifelong interest in style and clothing led to sales and management positions at several Ralph Lauren stores and an active wardrobe consulting practice