The original ad for a “Dopp-Kit,” invented circa 1919, lays out the purpose of the product as clearly as can be. Next to an elegant black-and-white image of a rectangular leather bag that opens at the top, copy describes how the kit “holds all necessary toilet articles and accessories.” It “opens wide, stays open for easy use. Closes snug and flat, taking up little space in your luggage.” In other words, it’s the perfect portable container. A waterproof lining also made it ideal for transporting toiletries.
The Dopp-Kit was so called because of its inventor, a German immigrant to America named Charles Doppelt. Aside from the Dopp-Kit, his most enduring creation, Doppelt also made briefcases and other bags—including “the amazing Brief-Master,” which came with fold-out compartments. In the midst of World War II, Doppelt won a contract to provide equipment for soldiers, and the dopp kit as it’s known today became famous. Every recruit received one.
The dopp kit is now one of those verbal generics, a single word that stands in for an entire genre of products—sort of like how “Googling” something simply means searching for it, and not just on Google.com. Lately, it’s most recognizable as an icon of menswear, a fetish object that allows for as much leather and brass hardware as possible to be used in the construction of a small container. We’re in a golden age of dopp kits.
The majority of dopp kits are still made from leather with a silk or nylon lining, just like the originals. Canvas, waxed or not, is also popular, as in the case of the WANT Les Essentiels de la Vie wash bag, which comes with auburn leather highlights. Coach makes pebbled all-leather kits that are elegant as well as useful, especially in the plain saddle color.
In the middle of the spectrum of utility and aesthetics are dopp kits that you can be sure won’t be damaged by a little water on a bathroom counter. L.L. Bean has an affordable kit with a leather bottom and a waxed canvas shell that includes an external hook as well as a zip pocket. The veteran boutique menswear designer Ernest Alexander has a similar, though more expensive, model that has a discrete leather border around the zipper and strips along the bottom, for durability without too much weight.
Tumi’s Alpha 2 Split Travel Kit might be the most functional. It’s built from ballistic nylon, the leather handle unsnaps for easy hanging over door handles, and the interior pockets close with zippers, which come in handy for keeping things separate. While the aesthetics are a little rough, with a prominent seams and logo patch, the added utility outweighs the flaws. This is a tool, after all.
Above all, what dopp kits need is a balance, which few strike. Miansai makes a unique toiletry kit that comes with a belted leather band rather than a solid strap. It sports a smooth exterior and an interior pocket, and at 11 inches long it’ll hold just about anything. It also won’t embarrass you on a hotel bathroom counter.
The “kit” of dopp kit refers to a more traditional definition of the word beyond assemblage. It descended from the Dutch kitte, or wooden vessel, and by the 18th century was connected directly to soldiers’ equipment, a discrete package of tools for daily life. The word is still appropriate for the standardized clutch of objects we might need when on a business trip or preparing for a night out in a foreign city: razor, toothbrush, emergency cologne or floss.
The dopp kit, then, is the Swiss army knife of daily life. If we’re really going to update it for modern times, perhaps it should come with a few added accessories like a USB phone charger, a Wi-Fi hotspot, or an extendable selfie stick. Who even needs a bathroom mirror?