Fitting the Bill: How to Get Through Winter in Duck Boots

L.L.Bean duck boots
Image credit: David Lezcano on Unsplash

There are a handful of incontrovertible truths about human life we are forced to confront, truths made all the more unpleasant by virtue of being unavoidable. Things like death and taxes. Or the fact that January exists. 

That last one is particularly egregious because it always sneaks up on you. Year after year the mind tricks itself into thinking that January can’t possibly be that bad. It contains New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and something called Plough Monday, after all. But, sure enough, once the dust has settled on the festive season and the short-lived excitement about a new year has burnt out, we are thrust back all too quickly into regular life with its brute facts of routine, deadlines, and perpetually unfulfilled resolutions. And while these things may always be true, they never seem quite as stark as they do in the grim light of January. 

Worst of all — and, parenthetically, I promise to move onto cheerier subjects here in a second, but the next bit is important — the weather absolutely blows. Once New Year has come and gone, every last bit of excitement about winter has been swept away like so much scattered confetti. All the snow just turns to slush, the brisk breezes have become blizzards, and the cool indifference of your weather app does nothing but predict an endless slew of icy days ahead. There is simply no time of year that seems longer, colder, and more devoid of hope than January does.

That is, unless you own a pair of duck boots. 

Friends, if the depths of winter have you feeling sad (whether in all caps or otherwise), may I recommend my own sartorial solution to those same seasonal blues: the L.L.Bean duck boot. There is, in my experience, no better consolation for the grim reality of a wintery wasteland than the giddy excitement of pulling on a pair of these funny-looking shoes. I’m on the record professing my love of characterful winterwear and appealingly ugly footwear and duck boots offers both in spades. When January weather and wardrobes tend to be uniformly grim and monotone, something as silly and incongruous as a pair of Bean Boots (to call them by their proprietary name) might be just the thing to get you excited about stepping outside. They are for me, anyway. In fact, when I stop to think about it, there’s probably no part of my winter wardrobe that I look forward to wearing more.

Sepia photo of a duck hunter
A duck hunter before the advent of the Maine Hunting Boot
Image credit: Reuben R. Sallows / No known copyright restrictions

Duck boots were invented by a man delighting in the name of Leon Leonwood Bean, who was fed up with having perpetually cold and soggy feet while hunting and fishing in the marshlands of his native Maine. As a solution, in 1912, Bean cooked up a Frankenstein’s Monster of footwear: half rubber galosh, half leather hunting boot. He then astutely rounded up a list of every man with a hunting license in the state and set about selling them what he dubbed the Maine Hunting Boot. Of the first 100 sold, 90 didn’t hold up, so Bean replaced them all free of charge — the first guarantee of quality for a product that has boasted many such bona fides for over a century. The boot proved a good enough product to build a soon thriving business upon, and it remains one of L.L.Bean’s best-selling products. People buy around half a million pairs annually and they have regularly been known to run out in recent years.

The boot’s popularity is rooted in its unbeatable functionality. Rubber bottoms keep the feet dry thanks to a finely-tuned vamping process that uses rubber cement to attach the bottoms to the leather uppers with added help from some triple-stitched wax-coated thread. The rubber portion’s five-line design also helps to dispel water across its surface. Then, in the top portion of the shoe, the tongue doesn’t split away from the rest of the upper, so one continuous piece of leather keeps water, twigs, and other unwelcome intrusions at bay, while the patented Split Backstay at the heel splits the seam so as to spare the wearer’s Achilles.

L.L.Bean duck boots on a set of steps
Image credit: James Fitzgerald on Unsplash

They don’t rush the production either. It takes a total of 85 minutes to make a single pair, thanks to the combined labour of nearly 400 people, all still based in Maine. What’s more, it takes 26 weeks (that’s half a year) for trainees just to get the stitching right. Then, once years of wear has worn out said stitching, you can send your boots back to have them redone courtesy of the company’s little-known repair programme.

Such functional reliability has made them a pillar of New England dressing, whether it be on the feet of duck hunters (the sport for which the shoe is named, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it had more to do with its appearance) or preppy college students. In fact, the boots have long been so popular among Ivy League types that The Official Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birnbach’s style-defining satire, dubbed them the second most important pair of shoes in a male prep’s arsenal, second only to a pair of Bass Weejun penny loafers.

Inhabitants of other cold and rainy climates the world over have also taken note, in no small part thanks to the advent of social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram, where duck boot pics are rivalled in popularity only by photos of lattes, labradors, and chunky knits as surefire markers of a cosy cold-weather lifestyle. With a growing global audience eager to get their feet in their own pair of duck boots, there’s little surprise that L.L.Bean is occasionally saddled with waiting lists for their signature shoe running up to as many as 100 000 orders. 

Man crossing a stream wearing L.L.Bean duck boots
Image credit: Tanner Vines on Unsplash

Equally unsurprising is the willingness of other brands to get in on the game. These days you can get duck boots made by everyone from Sorrel to Jimmy Choo to Kanye West. And Yeezy isn’t the only celebrity fan, by the way. Over the years duck boots have appeared on the feet of Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter, Jake Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Olsen, Aubrey Plaza, and even Megan Markle. Plus, Bean Boots — or Bean Gumshoes, to be specific — feature in at least one beloved bit of movie costuming as donned by Bob Balaban’s colourfully-clad narrator in Moonrise Kingdom.

Such wide-reaching popularity meant that I spotted my first real-life pair not in rural New England but in regular old England. I was delighted to finally encounter the shoes I’d admired from afar for years (I grew up in sunny South Africa, where Maine-born duck boots make about as much sense as vuvuzelas would at a lobster festival). When I quizzed the shoes’ owners, they kindly obliged by drawing my attention to the frankly dizzying array of styling options that are available and advised that I consult the labyrinthine sizing chart carefully before making a purchase.

A little while later, after I had duly poured over L.L.Bean’s online offerings and opted for the uninsulated 6’’ model, my very own pair arrived. Along with it came a printed card that said my boots had been handcrafted by the Bean Boot team in Brunswick, Maine and, specifically, by someone named Aymen. That was a good few years ago at this point, but I still sometimes think about that card when January rolls around. When I pull on my trusty duck boots in anticipation of the snow or rain that awaits outside, I’ll occasionally say a silent word of thanks to Aymen and the gang for making the trip ahead a little more pleasant.

L.L.Bean boot card
Image is my own / All rights reserved

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