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Herstory: Dooney And Bourke

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I have a clear memory of walking through Dillard’s with my mom and looking at the designer handbags. I was in six or seventh grade and as we made our way into the mall, we would stop at each counter to check out the latest styles. Coach and DKNY were my favorite, they were brands all my friends were wearing, but my mom, quite the classy and stubborn woman that she was, always skirted towards Dooney and Bourke’s counter.

“Look at that wallet,” she said, her index finger pressed on the glass, “that’s the one I like.”

“Ewwww, moooommm!” The wallet was hideous. It had a duck on it. Moms were so uncool back then and so was Dooney and Bourke.
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Then, about a year ago, the ducks started appearing again. It was sporadic but at work, on South Street, or while waiting in line for coffee, a woman would be wearing a Dooney and Bourke purse around her shoulder or wallet in her hand, vintage or new. I like to think that my eye and my taste level has matured since the seventh grade and I when I saw a woman wearing D&B, I didn’t mind the them. Actually, they were kind of classy, in a Ralph Lauren, Connecticut kind of way. Their resurgence came at a time when I started to shift my wardrobe away from trendy pieces and towards timeless looks (this is still an ongoing thing). Dooney & Bourke would be a fitting addition to this new closet of mine.

Dooney and Bourke is a brand that is and was neither this or that. It started in 1975 by Peter Dooney and Frederic Bourke in South Norwalk, Connecticut and initially sold two things – surcingle belts and classic suspenders. In 1981, D&B branched out into the handbag business and launched the Tack Case and Equestrian Bag, both made from bridle leather. Then, in 1983, the AWL (All Weather Leather) collection was released and it was at this time that the duck logo, which featured a duck whose head faces the right and body faces the left (weird?), was introduced. All weather leather was what Dooney and Bourke was known for. By shrinking the size of the pores during the tanning process, the leather was 100% waterproof and shed water off of it like it does off of a duck’s back. Functionally, it was a great bag – it stood up to wear and tear very well and it was easy to care for (just wiping the purse with a damp cloth would keep it clean and more difficult stains could be removed with water and a mild soap such as Ivory). Because of its performance and good looks, D&B should have taken off but it didn’t. It was popular but no superstar and I think I know why.

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What bothered me about the brand was that it wasn’t low grade enough that I could call it crap (like a Nine West handbags) but it wasn’t high end enough that I could desire it (like a Botkier handbag). It was in the middle. Just okay. I don’t know if your closet is or was like this but mine used to be – it was full of either cheap clothes and accessories from Forever 21 or expensive garments, shoes, and handbags from Neiman Marcus. There was no middle of the road. I either bought $20 or $200 products. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that ordinary clothes made well and paired correctly look extraordinary (J. Crew). I also started to realize that it was the ordinary things, people, and events that I loved the most and continued to love. I don’t look up to the Tiger Wood’s or the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s of this world because they’re usually not what they are cracked up to be. In most cases, it’s just a mirage. I don’t like overloading weekends with things to do. I like putzing around Philadelphia during the day, running a few errands and then hanging out at night. I like the mundane.

My tastes have changed and so has my attitudes towards Dooney and Bourke. They’re nothing special and they certainly don’t sparkle but shining in this world doesn’t always require glitter. Just like my Ray-Bans, Gap Jeans, or statement necklaces, they’re extraordinary because they’re ordinary.

One of my sponsors, Vaux Vintage, is full of awesome, retro, and extraordinarily ordinary products. Take a look for yourself.

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    hannah

    My mom used to take every opportunity she could to tell me that I was conceived over a Dooney and Bourke bag she got for Christmas. This is why I’ll never own anything from this brand.

  2. Reply

    Clare - ThreadBEAR

    I wasn’t very familiar with the Dooney and Bourke brand until last year – I don’t think it’s very popular in Britain. But for Christmas 2011, my sister bought me a Dooney and Bourke backpack from a vintage shop on etsy, and I love it! It may not be one of the most beautiful bags I own, but it’s simple, classic and practical.

  3. Reply

    Carlee McTavish

    Yeah, I used to buy almost everything at a store where the garments cost about $50 each. That’s more expensive than H&M or other places, but the garments weren’t always made as well as I thought. Plus everything was basically polyester. Ick. I didn’t realize that there was this gap of well-made mid-priced clothing until I read Overdressed.

    Anywho, those purses are quite beautiful!

  4. Reply

    sallieforrer

    A few years ago I was desperately in need of a new handbag and decided I wanted to invest (because I’m the kind of person who uses ONE bag until it falls apart…) and D&B was at the top of my list for durability/looks/price (and weirdly enough ‘on trend’). I ended up getting something else, but I loved that it reminded me slightly of my grandmother in a cool way.

  5. Reply

    Salma

    The memories that handbags evoke and how our responses to them change are so interesting. I remember my mother used to keep a purse that used to belong to her mother (she passed away young) and I used to think it was ugly but my mother treasured it. As I got older, my mother didn’t really care for it anymore and I fell in love with it. There may be some sentimentality here because by getting to know my grandmother’s taste in clothes and handbags, I got to know more of what type of person she was and I found it really influenced my own sense of style. Beautiful post!

  6. Reply

    Maggie Smith

    I remember going into an D&B outlet in Maine in the early nineties with my mother, who also loved the line. I seem to recall that she bought me a purse (used maybe once or twice, I should see if I still have it!), a belt and a keychain. For some reason I loved the duck! 🙂

  7. Reply

    Sarah Welsch

    I remember having a friend who was obsessed with them when I was 21, and made her boyfriend(now husband) buy her something from them every holiday! It is my goal this year to own something from Coach(its on my list of things to do before my birthday!)

    .
    Sarah

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/owleyevintage

  8. Reply

    Angela

    I think that these old doony and burke bags are adorable! I love vintage coach too!

  9. Reply

    Rachel

    I just scored a D&B over the shoulder backpack/purse at my local thrift store that looks similar in color to your 3rd photo. I feel like I stole it.. $6.50 couldn’t believe it!

  10. Reply

    Amy

    There used to be a D&B outlet just outside of Philly in the early 90s. I went there with friends one summer and bought my first “grown up” bag. Their fashion seems conservative to me now, but I loved the smell of that leather! And it gave me a taste for quality.

  11. Reply

    jyladvik

    I did not care for the older D&B styles, because I thought they looked very preppy and out of place by the mid 1990s. But they were all the rage then. Even women who could not afford a D&B bag had one. I knew one woman whose whole family pitched in to buy her one of these bags.

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