A Tale Of Two Suitings: Brooks in the ’50s & ’60s

Ivy Style contributor and Newton Street Vintage proprietor Zachary DeLuca returns after a long absence with this dissection of two vintage Brooks Brothers suits. For additional photos, visit his tumblr The Suit Room.

One of the best things about my job is that every so often I come across a piece so good that I have to take a moment to admire the finer points of hand-tailoring that went into it.  In this instance, I found not one but two such pieces, both from Brooks Brothers, both with the black label coveted by Brooks collectors.

The first is a strange bird considering Brooks’ die-hard affiliation with the three-button sack suit:  A two-button darted jacket, with an ultra-soft shoulder.

The silhouette is not unlike the jacket found in this 1948 Brooks ad, although this jacket dates from the very late 1950s, 1962 at the latest.

When compared to most contemporary ready-to-wear jackets, this suit contains a serious amount of handwork, with construction details now found primarily in bespoke garments. All buttonholes have been hand-sewn, and the canvassing of the lapel has been pad-stitched by hand, a detail that even some Savile Row makers are now eschewing for the more economical machine blindstitch.

Most notable, however, is the shoulder construction, which seems to owe more to fine Neapolitan tailoring than the Anglo-American heritage of Brooks Brothers. As with the Neapolitan style, the jacket has small, high armhole into which a generously draped sleevehead has been gathered:

The result is a soft, cascading shoulder with the ripples characteristic of an Italian spalla camicia.  The shoulder is constructed as a natural shoulder with minimal padding and slight extension, lying close to the wearer’s shoulder and ending slightly beyond his shoulder point.

This type of shoulder construction appears to have been used by Brooks for a brief period of its history; by the late 1960s their natural shoulder features a smoother shape more familiar to fans of the American-style natural shoulder.

Now for the ne plus ultra of American tailoring, the No. 1 sack suit:

From the same period (and owner) as the previous jacket, this jacket contains the same construction details, such as the very unique spalla camicia shoulders, hand-sewn buttonholes and hand-attached collar, and a very high button-stance unique to mid-century Brooks Brothers.

Note the large sleevehead and the high armhole:

The jacket’s high fastening stance, in which the top rolled buttonhole is situated higher than the breast pocket, as seen in the first image.

These details of construction point to an interesting moment in the heritage of Brooks Brothers in which the soft, relaxed aspect of Italian tailoring is combined with the study nature of English-style cloth (this cloth in particular is worsted herringbone, probably about a 12oz weight).  It points to a time before the rise of the luxury market, when hand-tailoring was a mark of a garment’s longevity, and when a man regarded the suit as a workhorse staple of the wardrobe. — ZACHARY DELUCA

26 Comments on "A Tale Of Two Suitings: Brooks in the ’50s & ’60s"

  1. NaturalShoulder | December 19, 2011 at 10:23 am |

    Those are some beautiful looking suits.

  2. Kevin Williams | December 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm |

    I had virtually that same glenn plaid 3 piece suit, in the late 70’s. I remember buying it at the One Liberty Plaza store, in NYC. I finally wore the pants out. It was a one season suit for sure, as it was a little too warm for a 2 or 3 season suit. The last time I was in the local Indy BB store, I asked the salesman for the fabric samples for their #1 Sacks. He had NO clue what I was talking about. When I asked him what colors he had in his 100% cotton shirts, made in the US, he directed me towards a table of imported non iron cottons. I gently explained to him, I wanted the traditional, NON non iron shirts. No clue. Fortunately a lady overheard, and she retrieved a few from the back in my size. At least they had a blue and a white. (I will leave the pink for others, not my style). At least on my visits to Chicago, they still have some of their career salesmen at the store, that know exactly what I am looking for.

  3. But are ready to wear or made on measure?

  4. They are RTW. Tag size 42L.

  5. Really interesting post….thanks for sharing.

  6. Now it’s come to a point where Brooks Brothers markets its Golden Fleece line (off the rack as well as made-to-measure via Martin Greenfield) as “hand made”, when in fact there’s no sign of hand work visible on the lapels or often even the buttonholes.

  7. Mr. Chensvold, I might politely suggest that the piece that hasn’t yet been written (as I’ll grant that some research may have been done already) well has to do with the deep, long-reaching roots of the American traditional look as defined by Brooks Brothers long, long before the so-called “Ivy League” era began. (Did the excesses of that moment, including excessively narrow lapels and ties and pants and Weejun obsession, last for more than six or seven years?). Isn’t the look, to borrow from The London Lounge moderator, is essentially Traditional English, including the famous 3/2 lapel? Pollock spoke of the “Ivy” purists’ take on Brooks: English. Too English, best I recall. Is there room for the high, non-hooked vent, four inch lapels that taper perfectly to the second button, full trousers, and the Cavalry Officers cut?

  8. SE:

    Thanks for chiming in, though I’m having trouble following you. For starters:

    “the deep, long-reaching roots of the American traditional look as defined by Brooks Brothers long, long before the so-called “Ivy League” era began.”

    You’ll need to expand this. Are you asking what was Brooks Brothers before, say, the 1920s?

    As for this:

    “(Did the excesses of that moment, including excessively narrow lapels and ties and pants and Weejun obsession, last for more than six or seven years?)”

    The fact that ties and lapels were narrow from the mid ’50s until the mid ’60s was indicative of Western fashion worldwide, not just America’s Ivy League Look. Before that Brooks and Press ties and lapels were wider, as they were after that period.

    And I’m not sure what your point is with the brevity of “Weejun obsession” (which still goes on in the UK, by the way). Throughout fashion history, not to mention music and the other arts, trends are actually very short. And yet from that relatively brief period in which penny loafers were ubiquitous they entered the perennial canon, and I see them worn by certain men every day on Madison Avenue.

    Next:

    “Isn’t the look, to borrow from The London Lounge moderator, is essentially Traditional English, including the famous 3/2 lapel?”

    Of course it is, though at the same time what distinguishes it to me is how it’s not English, how it’s quite deliberately an American way of dressing. The WASPs who adopted the natural shoulder style early on were largely of English decent, and of course Anglophilia is a common trait among upper-middles in the Northeast. We also speak English in America, and based many of our laws and customs on English ways. However, we also kicked them out because we wanted to do things our way, and we speak and dress with an American accent, not a British one.

    And finally:

    “Is there room for the high, non-hooked vent, four inch lapels that taper perfectly to the second button, full trousers, and the Cavalry Officers cut?”

    Is there room where? In your closet? Of course. On Ivy-Style.com? I suppose. But what’s the context and what’s the point?

  9. The above two-button jacket has a very Anderson and Sheppard drape look to me. The narrow lapels are of course period-correct, but I have seen plenty of English suiting from the same era with narrow lapels, so I don’t think it was a strictly American phenomenon. At 3″ wide, they’re on the more conservative side of narrow. Brooks also seemed to have maintaned a distinction between city/country suiting, with detailing like lapped seams and swelled edges found on tweed/cotton/cavalry twill suiting, but never on city cloth suitings like worsteds or flannels. There is a bit of a myth that Brooks never succumbed to the narrow lapel/tie fad, when in fact they made plenty of narrow examples of each.

    If you consider “English” tailoring to be tailoring in the military tradition of Gieves or Huntsman, then obviously a Brooks suit will look comparitively more American, but I think there is definitely an A&S connection.

  10. Spot on, Zach. The uniquely English take on soft tailoring is, to attempt a clumsy response to Mr. Chensvold’s counterpunch (delivered gently, received with humility), precisely the point.

    Regarding the myth: but in fact did Brooks succumb to the “Ivy” narrowness? I’ve seen Brooks suits circa the early 60s. I don’t think the lapels were less than 3 1/4 inches at the widest point.

    Mr. Chensvold, must we venture all the way back to the Jazz Age?

    Your preferences stated, for some the distinguishing trait is the historic connection with the English tradition of soft tailoring–as Zach asserts, the A&S drape look.

    By the way, out of curiosity: in addition to (other than) the center vent, what exactly about the American Look as introduced and interpreted by Brooks is, as you write, decidedly “not English”?

  11. The sack suit. The buttondown oxford as a business shirt. The penny loafer as a business shoe. Rep stripes going the opposite direction…

  12. I don’t think there are many tailoring details that are uniquely American in invention. The American look was developed by using English clothing in non-English ways. We took an obscure shirt collar worn by English polo players and turned it into the pre-eminent dress shirt for use with a tie. Tweed suits are certainly English, but wearing one in Manhattan or downtown Boston is an American gesture. “Country” longwings with city flannels. Cotton twill trousers of military origin worn casually by civilians…yes the cut my have English origins, but aside from Jazz and denim jeans, there is very little in American culture that didn’t originate in Britain or on the continent.

    I think applying national terms to tailoring breaks down pretty quickly if you look closer. What is English suiting when two firms on the same street create such different cuts? What is “Italian” tailoring when tailors in Sicily, Naples, Milan and Rome create different silhouettes? “Italian” in the 1990s meant broad-shouldered Roman, whereas nowadays its use (on the tiny world of the menswear internet) refers to soft-shouldered Neapolitan.

  13. OCBD as a “business shirt”? Repp stripes descending differently? Still English. As Zach puts the matter: “…using English clothing in non-English ways.” There it is.

    The sack suit is a uniquely American phenom? Hmmm.

    So then, where do the distinctions lie? Pollock provides direction. What was it about Brooks in, say, 1962, that prompted the “Ivy” purist to turn away in, if not disgust, disappointment? A matter of accessories? Or, more likely, dimensions?

  14. SE, if you don’t think that the Ivy League Look is American, or that America has a national style, then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

    As for this:

    ‘So then, where do the distinctions lie? Pollock provides direction. What was it about Brooks in, say, 1962, that prompted the “Ivy” purist to turn away in, if not disgust, disappointment? A matter of accessories? Or, more likely, dimensions?’

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll have to document this with facts so I have something to respond to. Right now this is just hypothetical speculation; you might find some interest in that sort of thing among English Ivy fans.

  15. @Zach
    “…..but aside from Jazz and denim jeans, there is very little in American culture that didn’t originate in Britain or on the continent.”

    Blues, Jazz, Rock n Roll, R&B, Soul, television, phonograph, light bulb, personal computer, internet…I could go on and on. It depends what you mean by “culture” I suppose.

    This must explain the odd British mixture of condescending behavior, mixed with their self-loathing and insecurity, when dealing with Americans. They hate themselves for loving us.

    By the way the British Royal family is German, aren’t they?

  16. One could argue that Americans use the English language in non-English ways. Hence, creating something different.
    I’m sure most English people would admit that American English is quite different in many ways other than just accent.

    One could also argue that many languages have common origins, and similar words/roots, but have diverged into different things altogether.

    One could also argue that all of humanity has common origins, and who will claim credit for inventing the wheel?

    One could argue anything and everything until the cows come home.

    If English people want to claim to “be Ivy” (whatever THAT
    means in a foreign country) while simultaneously claiming that everything is English anyway, i would suggest that they refrain from wearing any clothing that says “made in USA” on the tag.

    The ensuing ridiculous conundrum will immediately become apparent.

  17. Did I say the “Ivy League” look isn’t American? I don’t recall even hinting as much. Or did I?

    I am not sure I would claim that America has, as you put it, “a national style.” That sounds, well, weird.

    Hypothetical speculation? I can’t go for that either. No can do. I refer you to the oft-cited post by Ken Pollock. Do you regard his experience and insights as “hypothetical speculation,” or do they function as “facts”? He’s more than clear about the tension between stuffy, Brooksian Anglophilia and pure “TNSIL.”

  18. There are many books devoted to the history of fashion in America. Evidently we dress differently from other countries.

    “National style,” I agree, is not exactly a precise concept. Of course, people talk all the time about British and Italian style.

    Perhaps it’s Mr. Pollock you should be asking?

  19. Some of the argument here is on the same level of silliness as arguing whether the American brownie is an innovation on the chocolate cake or a mere derivative thereof. Of course it’s both. It’s always both.

  20. There’s an “American brownie”?

  21. It was both invented and “invented” in the United States.

  22. Derivation. Innovation. Either/or. A bit of both. Good enough for me.

    Apologies for the tedium. it does begin to sound rather silly at some point, doesn’t it?

    And thanks for the back-and-forth, Mr. Chensvold. My apologies if I tried your patience. I appreciate your efforts toward maintaining Ivy Style. Well done.

  23. No problem, SE. And you didn’t try my patience. It’s just that I get a lot of random messages so need to quickly get to the point of exactly what I’m being asked.

  24. Dickey Greenleaf | December 23, 2011 at 8:24 pm |

    And don’t say you’re not impressed, the sack suits look ubiquitous from 1948 to say the 1960 periods. I think, the main reasons so many trends or trads change is because the supply and demand(economics) controls what’s Ivy, and what’s not Ivy,for example, no matter how well handcrafted or special any garment or business suit is,and who can afford it, It’s what looks Ivy, Neapolitan,and American is what controls the bottom line,from a marketing angle, and how efficiently and effectively the prices can change the market,(a vintage look can bring in huge profits) for instance, look at how the same suit in 1948 can cost $115.00 and now be a whopping $1,700. “The illusion has became real”, Gordon Gecko. But in conclusion the workmanship on these two jackets of these two particular suits are very aristocratic in taste, I think, in my opinion, handsome yet stiff. Or Ivy, or trad, or etc.

  25. Perhaps a matter of economics, but the purely aesthetic aspect is undeniable. The point I attempted (clumsily, I admit) in the first post has to do with the connection between American soft tailoring as interpreted (defined?) by Brooks way, way back when, and the English tradition of soft tailoring (probably exemplified best by A&S). Why is it that I like everything about Graydon Carter’s blazer and Mr. Alden’s tweeds (see London Lounge), but cringe at much of the hardcore Ivy era kit. Everything seems so short and narrow. The American Anglophilia extends beyond clothing, though. The penny loafer may serve as case in point. I can’t seem to force myself to like the Weejun, but I would happily wear the C&J Boston. I wouldn’t mind seeing a resurrection of the single-pleated trouser, and slightly wider ties just plain look better.

  26. I don’t know about this hair-splitting debate, but I do know that that pocket square looks like a dot-matrix paper sheet, and I believe button-down collars need not be fastened with a pin when the buttons have not yet fallen off…

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