200 Years Of American Style: The Brooks Brothers Bicentennial

Time is a funny thing. It’s a lot easier to look backward than forward. Has something to do with the past being real — having actually happened — while the future is indeterminate and isn’t real until it becomes the present.

Brooks Brothers is celebrating its bicentennial this year. It’s incredible, but not impossible, to imagine this singular American institution sprouting into life two centuries ago, just a couple of generations after the founding of this country. What’s beguiling, on the other hand, is imagining what it — or any other aspect of life in what might someday be known as the country formerly known as the USA — might look like in 200 more years.

The precise anniversary of the founding is in April, and a company spokesman said Brooks is keeping mum on what it has planned by way of celebration. But Brooks kicked off the momentous milestone with a coffee-table book released in November. I’ve been sitting on it since before then, but rather than excited about cracking open the cover, I was somewhat dreading it. Brooks Brothers is such a massively larger and different company than it was when it was the chief flag-bearer of traditional American style, that traditionalsists have come to expect disappointment. And really that’s not entirely fair: it’s like holding up a musician to the standard of the genre he once played but plays no more. It can’t be deemed a failure to play bad folk music when one is no longer trying to play folk music. The problem for us is that while the music is different, the old melody lingers on.

Eventually I realized that there is a point of comparison for Brooks’ new book, which is entitled “200 Years Of American Style,” and that’s the 2003 tome “Generations Of Style.” The latter spends much more time on the details of company history and includes many more archival images. The new book shows how much has changed in 15 years under the present ownership (speaking of which, I’ve heard a rumor it might be up for a change). There’s much more focus on the fashion and entertainment side of things. The historic images of Hollywood types, Brooks itself, and various vintage places and people are largely well familiar from other books and the Internet. Whatever exists in the Brooks Brothers archives, which is managed by a full-time employee, we may perhaps come to know someday.

We’ll keep you posted on bicentennial celebrations throughout the year. — CC

Image courtesy of Rizzoli

35 Comments on "200 Years Of American Style: The Brooks Brothers Bicentennial"

  1. Mitchell S. | January 5, 2018 at 1:55 pm |

    Thom Browne and the Gatsby collection were the two best things that ever happened to Brooks. So sad to see that they are distant memories.

  2. Because they own Southwick and Garland, Brooks remains the most important, influential trad retailer. Ever. Brooks now makes shirts, suits and sport jackets for J. Press—surely a source of amusement. Ratio uses Garland and (with apologies to Mercer & Sons) it’s the best MTM OCBD option—certainly the best value. Southwick MTM is a great value if you use your own cloth.

    Three cheers for Brooks. They’ve outlasted the copycats.

  3. On the shirt front, my wish is that they put the pocket back on the $140 OCBD.

  4. Good one, Mitchell.

    Will

  5. I know BB has been buying vintage examples of their clothing, mostly from the 40s through the 60s, from vintage collectors and such. Apparently the BB archives contained almost no actual clothing. I imagine they’re preparing some sort of bicentennial display or something, maybe at 346. Will be interesting to see!

  6. I’ve been meaning to bring up the issue that Dominic raises, but was embarrassed that I had some ‘blind spot’ that everyone else already understood: why do Brooks’ new, American-made OCBDs not have a breast pocket? I’ve bought several of them and, as I’ve mentioned here before, love the unlined collar and placket, the fit suits me, and they’re laundering nicely. But I’ve also gone to put a pen, or my glasses, into a non-existent pocket and had them hit the floor.

    Is there some historical reason for this?

    PS – disagree with SE: the one Ratio shirt I tried was worn twice and promptly donated to the local Goodwill.

    Finally – while I enjoy the new BB OCBDs, my preference for broadcloth (at the exact same price point, interestingly) is Mercer.

  7. Jeff, they have been buying/borrowing vintage pieces which will be on display in Florence, I’m told. I sent them a vintage OCBD to use and they said that once it’s up they’ll send me pictures of my shirt as part of an outfit. Speaking of the 346, I went for the first time this Boxing Day and was disappointed. The store felt musty, in the worst way, and looked as though it’s not being kept up well. The ceiling showed signs of severe water damage, for example.

  8. Paul, I do believe that the removal of the chest pocket was for historical reasons. The pocket was only added in 1967. The current $140 OCBD is very similar to its 50’s BB counterpart, with some exceptions.

  9. @GS: Interesting. In menswear, was a breast pocket seen as a newfangled convenience in the 60s? Having only owned them from the 80s onward, I’d assumed they’d always been there for the sake of utility.

  10. Paul, I don’t know if Brooks was the first to add a breast pocket to their shirts. I would be surprised if they were, 1967 seems late.

  11. Charlottesville | January 5, 2018 at 4:48 pm |

    Paul — I too like everything about the new Brooks OCBD except the price and the lack of pocket. As our knowledgeable friend S.E. noted above, Ratio does a great job for less than $100, and will be happy to give you an unlined collar and placket. I also agree with S.E. on Southwick. Last week I saw a beautiful sport jacket that Eljo’s had made by Southwick for their store here in my town. Soft shoulder, undarted, 3/2 coat with a hook vent in a gorgeous green herringbone tweed. Not sure what the MTM price would be, but it is dependent on the fabric, and they have thousands of choices.

  12. Mitchell S. | January 5, 2018 at 5:06 pm |

    My beef with Brooks Brothers is that they have drifted from their roots. Since 1818, Brooks has been synonymous with American innovation. No longer. These days BB is what G. Bruce Boyer calls a “low-rent Italian department store.”

    Gone mostly are the American made apparel and cutting-edge styles. Instead, Brooks is pedalling Malaysian-made OCBDs as “heritage.” Take the photo of the guy on the skateboard with the bright yellow pants. Bright colors and rolled up pant bottoms (sprezzatura) are very Italian and have nothing to do with traditional American style or clothing. With the exception of their Alden/Rancourt/AE shoes, Garland shirts, and Southwick suits, most of their apparel is middling quality, ridiculously overpriced and interchangeable with the “Euro-prep” that one sees at the H and M in Rome or Florence.

  13. I always like to see a man showing a bit of shirt cuff on his skateboard. On shirts, to me they’ve always looked second-rate without a pocket, like there’s been some skimping with the fabric.

  14. Mitchell hit the nail on the head. I get that the company is doing everything they can to survive these days, style-wise, but their trouble started when M&S tried to modernize Brooks’ wares. If only the company didn’t become so bloated and stayed small and traditional, maybe they’d be better off today.

  15. john carlos | January 5, 2018 at 7:10 pm |

    If you shop BB online they reduce the price for their OCBD’s from $140 to $100 from time to time. In fact I’ve bought several at the $100 price this year. For me, no pocket no problem. I rarely use a pocket anyway.

  16. There’s that key year of ’67 again. When everything changed – including BB adding breast pockets to OCBDs.

    There’s a classic passage from a book or article from the heyday about subtle fashion hints, that has been quoted on this site somewhere, to the effect that you could tell a shirt was from BB from the lack of breast pocket, just as you could tell a J.Press shirt due to the pocket flap.

    From the traditional perspective, the lack of pocket made the shirt “dressier”. The OCBD is an ambiguous shirt – either the dressiest kind of sport shirt, or the least dressy dress shirt, depending on how you want to look at it – but BB took their concept of what was dressy from their English antecedents. By traditional English standards a dress shirt simply does not have a pocket.

    Adding the pocket was a step toward making the shirt less dressy. I’m sure a lot of traditionalists were upset when they added it. The pocket made the BB shirts less distinctive.

    It’s ironic that BB defined traditional American style, but resisted Americanising their iconic OCBD design until right at the moment when the style they had defined was abandoning its position as the height of fashion.

  17. cameron,

    I think the question of pocket vs. no pocket is best approached from how we wear the shirt. If under jacket or vest at all times, then the pocket is useless, and depending on gentlemen’s sensitivities, that extra layer of shirting could be bothersome. If at any point the shirt is worn standalone, then a sizable portion of gentlemen may have need to store baubles on their shirt. The clean front may even appear too bare.

    Horses for courses.

  18. john carlos | January 5, 2018 at 9:49 pm |

    @Dominic The clean front along with the BB collar roll make the shirt ultimate trad in my opinion.

  19. Those of us of a certain age bought BB OCBDs instead of
    the numerous equivalents on the market, with proper collar-roll
    no less, precisely because they had no pocket. No pocket identified
    them as BB when such identification had real snob appeal.
    A similar fetish was for tab collar shirts with real collar buttons-
    the kind used for detached collars instead of the “snap tabs”
    worn by anyone with a crew cut and a three button suit. True
    “Ivy types” adhered to such standards.

  20. Mitchell Baird | January 6, 2018 at 1:01 am |

    I took one of my “Original Polo” shirts to an alterations tailor and asked him how many chest pockets he could produce from it. The number made the $140 “sacrifice” seem neglible. He also charged me next to nothing for producing the pockets. Now I no longer drop my pens or eyeglasses on the floor when putting them into imaginary pockets.
    Question does anybody but Brooks Brothers copywriters use the word “polo” to refer to these collars/shirts?

  21. NaturalShoukder | January 6, 2018 at 3:46 am |

    Paul – must disagree with you about the Ratio OCBDs but do agree with you about Mercer broadcloths. I have not idea where David Mercer sources his broadcloth but quality is far superior to competition. Plus the choice of color and pattern is impressive.

  22. NaturalShoulder | January 6, 2018 at 3:53 am |

    Didn’t catch mistyped moniker

    Paul – must disagree with you about the Ratio OCBDs but do agree with you about Mercer broadcloths. I have not idea where David Mercer sources his broadcloth but quality is far superior to competition. Plus the choice of color and pattern is impressive.

  23. Oh, Brooks how have you stood so long
    For Ivy Style you once held the banner strong
    But now you’re falling
    Your sales are stalling
    And to us all that you do is wrong

  24. @Paul

    If you donated the shirt in a spirit of charity/generosity, God bless you.

    If had do to with disappointment in fit or cloth, you should have taken advantage of Ratio’s (outstanding) return/remake policy.

    My first Ratio shirt was far from perfect. I sent it back with additional specs, and now I”m a happy, committed customer. Not sure why Michael Spencer (also Garland) shirts are more expensive.

    Wish they could do a 3.75″ OCBD collar, but 3.5″ is fine in the meantime.

  25. If it is a quality shirt you want go to Mercer. Nuf said. If it is history, labor with BB. Got a gift card for Christmas and ordered a blue banker stripe pinpoint OCBD. Came quickly but was made off shore and had two imperfections on the right cuff. The stripes were uneven and the cuff placket had extra material rolled up in the seam. Sent it back. Plus they did not have traditional fit in my size, yet the Madison model seemed to fit ok.

  26. I received the book for xmas. There are many images of people wearing button downs that are incorrectly captioned as being Brooks Brothers shirts when they are clearly not. Shockingly poor research and editing.

  27. Ken Pollock | January 6, 2018 at 5:51 pm |

    In the late 50’s-early 60’s there were numerous excellent OCBDs, all which had unlined and unfused collars (J. Press, Troy Shirtmakers Guild, Gant, Sero, Wren, Creighton, Eagle, Aetna, etc.), all of which had a pocket (and as mentioned, the J. Press version had a pocket flap [and so did Eagle]). BB sold two OCBDs, its winter heavy-weights, which had no pocket, since all of its winter-weight suits came with a vest and also somewhat lighter weight summer OCBDs, which had a pocket. Actually, I think Troy Guild made most of the latter ones for BB. I think BB added a pocket to the winter heavy-weight OCBD in the late 60s because it then started offering most of its winter-weight suits without a vest. As far as I remember, there were no shirts branded either Gitman or Kenneth Gordon back then.

  28. Mr. Pollock, I thought that Brooks’ shirts were made in their Paterson, New Jersey factory until it was closed in the 1980s when Marks & Spencer took over.

  29. I haven’t heard anyone mention BB’s newish $140 made in USA sportshirt – the one that is identical to the new OCBD, but with the pocket and alpha sized.

    I just bought some from one the Ebay sellers who flips their Garland factory seconds product and I couldn’t be more pleased. I know that S/M/L/XL in Madison/Regent/Milano isn’t the same as neck and sleeve sizing, but I bought mine at less than half the retail price and they fit like a glove. For me, they are the platonic ideal.

    I’ll add that they alter a few trad details – they include a gauntlet button, the barrel cuff includes 2 buttons instead of one, and it’s missing side gussets. Other than that, it’s still US made, MOP buttons, perfect weight oxford, unlined/unfused collar/placket/cuffs, and the perfect length for either tucked in or untucked.

    All that said, I still wouldn’t pay 140/piece – but their an absolute steal at 60% off.

  30. The skateboarding image totally explains the short jacket lengths.

  31. Ken Pollock | January 7, 2018 at 8:07 am |

    True, most Brooks’ “Makers” shirts were made in their Paterson, New Jersey factory until it was closed in the 1980s, when Marks & Spencer took over. However, apparently not all BB “Makers” shirts were actually made by BB. Joe Putnal (now deceased), the owner of an Atlanta trad clothing shop (now closed), once told me that he had visited the Troy Shirtmakers Guild factory and had seen several hundred BB white shirt boxes, stacked against a wall, ready to be shipped out. He inquired and was told that Troy often made shirts for BB, when the demand for them exceeded the ability of its NJ factory to supply enough of them.

  32. Something no one, I think, has mentioned. Ralph Lauren started at BB as a salesman, and now that he runs his own company, or did until recently, no shirts have pockets. Is that an ode to the old BB style?

  33. @JDD: I noticed those sportshirts you mention when I picked up my last “new” OCBD – in fact I mistook them for the sized ones until I saw the alpha sizing. The “sport” versions were on hangars (and may have had the sleeves rolled up?), whereas the sized dress ones were folded on a table. I’ll have to look for the reseller.

  34. JoelVau, that’s an interesting thought given that Lauren started his business in 1967, the same year Brooks started putting pockets on their shirts.

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