Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Search Of LL Bean

I read the book years ago, and was given an old copy for my birthday this year. I will be passing it along soon. It's more than 25 years old, so a few sections have little interest now, and the book does feel a bit padded, with chapters on fishing in Maine or Maine humor (and not a very good one). Still, the subject interests me and I can put up with a lot to get that info. And the book leaves off just about where I left off LL Bean myself, around 1984. We still received the catalog for years after, and I imagine we may have ordered a thing or two, but the period in which I aspired to be an LL Bean customer, a recognisable image, must have ended by that time. I recall Jonathan going to Montessori school in green pants and a yellow polo on a day I was wearing yellow pants with a green polo, and photos after that do not record similar clothes for either of us. That would be 1983 or 84. I was 30.

So there is much to learn about myself, and something about how the world of social class developed after that, reading back over the material now that we know the rest of the story.

My claim on high preppiness was always marginal. Oh yes, there are very much degrees of this, and while money helps, it is more than mere cash. The age of the cash, and how it was acquired matters, and name, heredity, and school all play their part. With focus and effort, I could have qualified myself as a C-level preppy, and positioned my older children to move to B-level if they so chose. The stepfamily my mother married us into when I was 13 were far better qualified than I, and the generational picture in the Official Preppy Handbook looked chillingly like my mother and Ken at the time. "We" married into lacrosse, curling, a banner from Yale '88, and duck decoys that had actually been used. But even at that, we were second or third-level: Tilton, not St. Paul's; visiting Bar Harbor or Bald Peak Colony but not belonging; Cow Island, not Governor's. As a suburban socialist, I wanted to be invited so I could reject them. Even when I went to St. Paul's it was the summer program, which doesn't count.

One could enhance prep credentials from the other side, and this was where LL Bean came in. You could be an outdoorsman, talking knowledgeably about AMC huts or the operation of sailing vessels - ideally because one had spent summers doing the work, but glib talkers could cheat up a bit. Bean was not the outfitter of serious hunting, sailing, or adventure camping expeditions*. Freeport was for those whose fathers and grandfathers had done such things, or more likely wanted to pretend their fathers and grandfathers had. So if you actually had worked Carter Notch Hut for a season and been in the Amherst College Outing Club, and chose your LL Bean home wear wisely, you could blend in seamlessly for the two decades it took to make it real.

It wasn't until the late 70's that LL Bean learned that its ads in Field & Stream generated almost no new business, while its ads in The New York Times Review Of Books were pure gold. They didn't like learning that, actually, preferring it not be true. They calculate in retrospect that the small ads in the New Yorker in 50's and 60's taken out on the advice of a loyal customer who L.L. liked, probably generated more of their new business in those years than all the other newspapers and magazines together, with the possible exception of the Boston newspapers, where they advertised on the sports pages. Boston Brahmins still followed both the Red Sox and their college teams, so Bean still caught them, though the Style section would have been far better. Not until the 70's did they find that catching the wives and daughters was better still. And discovering that changed the company and the catalog. Not only shirt-dresses and wrap skirts, but dog beds and fireplace items came in.

The early Bean customer, the Sport from Boston or Baltimore or Philadelphia, was drawn from an extremely conservative demographic, but their children veered left, at least in some ways. They were the early environmentalists - single, anxious to preserve their childhoods and so resisting development anywhere near their places of nostalgia (after they had gotten in, that is). It was the natural midpoint between conservation and environmentalism, and the fact that having few or no children was encouraged made it that much more attractive to careerists. Also, Republicans had started holding hands with those icky southern and midwestern Christians, while Ivies and Wannabe faculties were moving left. The joke used to be that the LL Bean mailing list included the entire U-U membership plus half the Episcopalians, who could tell at a glance whether you were in the right half or not.

Modeled after the British aristocracy, really. Private schools 7-12th, shooting and fishing clubs.

The naming of colors became clever in the catalogs - too clever by half for me, with Nantucket Red replacing the simple "Red" of earlier catalogs. Hunter, and Slate, and Sage. Not just blue, but Mallard Blue, not green, but Dark Lichen. Everything natural and outdoorsy.

*For those, see Willis & Geiger, or the original Abercrombie & Fitch. Or for Maine, most country stores carried more goods a deepwoods hunter would actually use than what Bean had. Except the shoes, which actually were pretty good. But no one ever got their mink traps at Bean's, and they certainly won't start now.


Sam L. said...

I read a book about the company around that time. It may have been this one; I can't recall. For me, though, preppy clothes were more likely from Orvis than Bean. Being preppy was not likely because I had grown up in the midwest long before I ever heard of preppyness. (Somewhere in the house I have 2 or 3 mock LLBean catalogs, which I found quite funny.) And I still buy occasional things from LLB.

Dan D said...

I take a very utilitarian approach to LL Bean, not being from New England, thank the Lord. Many short vacations and a family property on Cape Cod vaccinated me against the whole New England snobby class culture.

Oh yes, a true Yankee of the right sort immediately notices the wrong ethnic descent, school affiliation, accent and choice of phrasing, manner of dress, and so much more. It's like real America was some regrettable detour from their comfy tribal and aristocratic way of life. How I love to properly pronounce the letter R just to see the lips curl and jaw set.

LL Bean at least has some useful merchandise, and some apparel items that will last more than a season. They are friendly folks at the Freeport store, perhaps by necessity for their business model. The Orvis folks however are defending a price point where they can afford to sneer at the rabble.