Ever since I was young, I knew I was going to do something notable. What I definitely did not know is that said thing would involve L. L. Bean tote bags.

Let me explain.

Last summer, I came across an Instagram post from stylist Juliana Salazar featuring a woman carrying an L. L. Bean Boat and Tote bag emblazoned with the word psycho. Five minutes later, there was an order confirmation for a psycho tote in my in-box.

In mid-February, as the proud owner of a growing number of totes of all shapes and sizes, I created @ironicboatandtote, an Instagram account for my friends and me to basically laugh at ourselves and our collections of ironically embroidered totes.

Fast-forward to a hot June day in New York. I’m bored in my apartment and seeking validation, so I make a TikTok, rating pictures of different bags posted on @ironicboatandtote. That day, I woke up with about 200 followers on the account and went to sleep with more than 10,000, plus a flurry of messages notifying me that L. L. Bean had sold out of totes due to high demand.

Boating with an “Hermes” Boat and Tote.

This summer has been one of extremely high screen times as I juggle what are essentially several full-time social-media jobs (only one of which I actually earn money from—thank you, Graydon). It’s also been one of surprises. Of all the things that could have gone viral, why L. L. Bean totes?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that the answer has little to do with the bags themselves.

I’m sure some people were drawn to this trend because they, like me, hold a strong affinity and nostalgia for handmade-in-Maine L. L. Bean, which will celebrate its 110th anniversary in the fall, and the Boat and Tote, which celebrates its 78th. They probably appreciate the Boat and Tote’s superior quality—I have one of my mom’s that is easily 25 years old and is still in perfect condition despite extremely heavy usage. L. L. Bean rookies might be discovering what veterans have known for decades: that Boat and Totes are like the cockroaches of bags—they will outlive us all. And they start at $29.95.

But I think the more important thing here is how people are feeling right now.

With the advent of social media and the accelerant of the pandemic, trend cycles have gone into overdrive. On TikTok, a micro-trend is introduced with a new “it” item or “core,” played out, and fully exhausted within a few months—sometimes even a few weeks. How are we to keep up with what is “in” today versus what is outdated or, worse … cheugy? Then there’s the daunting news that fashion over-consumption is one of the largest contributors to global waste and warming. But … trends! We are exhausted.

The author, with her first ironic tote.

From my research—and by that I mean the infinite hours per day that I spend on TikTok—what many fashion-minded people are turning to instead are items that are of high quality and speak to who they are more than to any specific trend. We are in the era of Show-Me Style. The Ironic Boat and Tote happened to just be in the right place at the right time.

There is a certain charm in placing an irreverent phrase on a canonically WASP-y product. This juxtaposition has also opened up the world of Boat and Totes for many who felt excluded from it in the past. “As a resident New Englander, I have always felt like I couldn’t totally embrace the Boat and Tote look because I am Italian and don’t have a cool WASP-y name (or even three initials!),” said @ironicboatandtote follower Caroline R., whose totes include ones with class act, tart, and Bimbo on them. “I honestly feel like this idea has opened an incredible product up to so many people who might not feel like they fit in the typical ‘prep’ aesthetic.”

Meow …

The suggestion of a fellow TikToker that I have bastardized L. L. Bean totes—“Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy would never”—only goes to further my point.

The words the IB&T-ers are choosing vary widely. My favorite categories are: medication of choice (zoloft, xanax, adderall); warnings (i bite, vicious, feral); fandoms (Belieber, baja blast, owl theory); and just absurdity (“CULTLEADER,” “5318008”). (Type that last one into a calculator and turn it upside down.)

The best thing about this trend is that when you’re bored of your word, you can just rip it out and embroider something else. Remember, these bags will outlive us all.

Herewith, I leave you with 10 AIR MAIL–inspired Boat and Tote embroidery ideas for your consideration.

  1. Vulgarian (except the short-fingered type)
  2. W.M.U.S.M.A.S. (Wake Me Up Saturday Morning At Six)
  3. old school
  4. W.D.O.E.H.? (Who Does Our Editor’s Hair?)
  6. WTF?
  7. scandale!
  9. R.I.P., PRINT
  10. Forget L. L. Bean and snag one of AIR MAIL’s totes. (I think I am contractually obligated to plug these, but trust me, they are worth it.)

Gracie Wiener is the Social Media Manager for AIR MAIL