Back In The Day: The Inner Sanctum Of Brooks Brothers

I went to William And Mary, graduating in 1974, the second Watergate summer. My Richmond, Virginia public high school was a sea of Ivy style dress, as was the city itself, served by incredible downtown department stores and specialty men’s stores in the heyday. As the ’70s arrived, I drifted from the Ivy style I’d grown up with, but was gently nudged back by a favorite professor, who was a Princeton grad. He’d told me that when I got a job, a Brooks Brothers credit card was an easy first card to get.

Nixon’s fall ushered in 75 freshman House Democrats, including the Northern Virginia candidate I’d volunteered for. The House office buildings were a stew of young men and women from every corner of the country — a great place to date, too. (It was a young lady from Connecticut who told me, over drinks, about Jos. A Bank.) Finding Brooks Brothers in Washington then wasn’t easy. The subway was under construction but wasn’t yet operational. I had the address from the phone book — that’s how we googled in the ’70s — but I must have passed it a time or two before figuring out that there was no storefront. Perhaps like the Metropolitan Club nearby, they thought signage was unnecessary and a bit vulgar. There was an inconspicuous door leading to a staircase that took you to the store, which was on the second floor. There was a lot of dark wood, of course, and a lot of people who knew their way around the racks and stacks. I did not. It was Christmas shopping season, and I was clearly not the only man shopping for himself. Being a news nerd, I recognized former Ambassador David KE Bruce, otherwise unnoticed, patiently waiting at the busy counter to pay for a large stack of white OCBD shirts.

When that inner sanctum eventually relocated to street level, I would have my own salesman, Mr. Prakash, but perhaps because the upstairs store was cramped and busy, I enjoyed going through the stacks of shirts unaided, unbothered, and left alone to explore. I find it thoroughly annoying now when I go into my local mall Brooks — infrequently, by the way— where the shirts are behind a counter, where the sizes are unmarked on the shelves, and a sales associate is needed to find anything.

I miss the old store. And the old shirts. — CN

31 Comments on "Back In The Day: The Inner Sanctum Of Brooks Brothers"

  1. In the early sixties the Brooks Brothers store in Los Angeles was upstairs in an office building on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. Still wearing things I got there.

    Brooks Brothers later moved to a large store on the corner of 7th and Grand in downtown Los Angeles. The former Brooks Brothers store on 7th and Grand is now a bakery, bar, and restaurant called Bottega Louie.

    Went into Bottega Louie for the first time a few weeks ago. Realized I was wearing a blue blazer I got there in the early seventies when Brooks Brothers was still there. Got a cookie at Bottega Louie. Seemed like the cookie had been left in the oven too long. Don’t think I will ever go into Bottega Louie again.

    Will just sit here quietly waiting for someone to comment about only the bottom button being buttoned on the three button jacket in the Brooks Brothers advertisement. People have forgotten before the internet was invented the men buttoned whatever buttons they wanted to button.

  2. Back in the ’70s I once saw Nicholas von Hoffman, the columnist, neo-Marxist and Alinsky protege, being fitted for terribly conservative suit at the old Brooks store in D.C.– charcoal-gray chalk-striped.

  3. Old School Tie | November 12, 2019 at 1:03 pm |

    That little ensemble is 100% Savile Row…..

  4. Vern Trotter | November 12, 2019 at 1:23 pm |

    Miller and Rhodes, a once fine department store in Richmond, was part of the Garfinkle, Brooks Brothers family for 25 years or so from the late 60s until around 1990. No connection with Brooks otherwise. Long gone now.

  5. Very little Ivy in Richmond for anyone under 70 now save for navy blazers and a few OCBD’s. Ledbury shirts seem to be the standard for dress on East Main St. CPA and law firms have had to lower dress standards to recruit somewhat due to the influence of Capital One. People wear shorts to Morton’s and Fleming’s. steakhouses.

  6. Charlottesville | November 12, 2019 at 2:25 pm |

    Nice memories, CN. By the time I arrived on the scene in the mid 80s, Brooks Brothers had moved to the the ground floor at the corner of L and (I think) 19th. I remember Mr. Prakash, though. I also recall Jos. A. Bank from the late 70s when it was more-or-less a poor man’s Brooks and suited my pocketbook better than the original. I still regularly wear a JAB Harris Tweed 3/2 sack sport coat from that era that will likely never wear out.

    Mr. Trotter – I well remember Miller and Rhodes. My mother shopped there in Richmond and in their smaller Charlottesville store when we visited her Virginia hometown (Staunton). Thalhimers was another Richmond department store, and I was dragged through it and M&R regularly around Christmas time as a youngster. Garfinkle’s was still doing quite well when I arrived in Washington, and of course owned Brook Brothers at the time, as you said. All are now gone or changed beyond recognition, which seems to be a common refrain in my comments.

  7. Charlottesville

    I also have fond memories of Miller and Rhodes in Virginia Beach. They had a fine men’s shop which I remember, correctly or not, somewhat resembling the store in the British comedy show “Are You Being Served?” I saw my first RL OCBD there in the young men’s department. Rice’s Nachman was another nice men’s store in Hampton Roads. Thanks to it’s high quality construction, Harris Tweed houndstooth material and my extremely fast metabolism I am still able to wear an early ’80s coat from Rice’s. The exclusive Alexander Beagle was out of my price range at the time.

    Will

  8. Charlottesville | November 12, 2019 at 5:01 pm |

    Will – Rice’s and Beagle are new to me. Richmond had a very nice men’s store in the late 70s called Alexander Dean where I first discovered Polo button-downs. I am wearing a store-label repp stripe from Alexander Dean today, coincidentally with a Polo OCBD, neither of which are in my usual rotation. I must have sensed that this would be Old Virginia Retail Reminiscence Day.

    I think the since-closed “Men’s Store” in Staunton and Eljo’s (still very much in operation in Charlottesville) were my primary influences as a teenager and young man learning how to dress. Both hewed very close to Ivy style with Sero, Southwick, Alden, Bass and the other traditional brands of the era. That was still how most professional men, young and old, dressed in Virginia in the 70s through the 90s and even into the early 2000s, although by then it was already fading.

  9. Alexander Dean carried Polo and Alexander Julian. The store later changed to women’s wear only and closed. Strohmeyer and Epps was the ivy store in Richmond. They sold lots of Southwick. They too are long gone.

  10. That’s a four button if you count the top button near the collar. Guys have been known to button those on blustery days. Buttoning the bottom button makes for a very low stance, an excellent look imo, but it wouldn’t work without the vest.

  11. My first encounter with Brooks Brothers occurred in 1976 or 1977. I was a baby lawyer in San Antonio and had business in downtown Houston. I wandered into the BB store there in my spare time and spent a few hours going through all the OCBD’s, tartan plaid sport shirts, rep ties, and shell cordovans. I spent a good bit of time and money that initial visit. There was no BB in San Antonio back then, only Dallas and Houston. We’ve had a BB in SA for several years now. Only problem is save and except for a few items (boxers, OCBD’s, and some higher end sport shirts) I wouldn’t wear most of their offerings if they gave them to me. Not to mention that most of their sales people (think young women) wouldn’t know a hooked vent if it bit them in the butt.

  12. Do you Richmond natives remember a men’s store called Greentree’s, or Roundtree’s, something like that, that was down a couple of blocks or so from Miller & Rhoads? I used to visit a few times in the mid-sixties, was just a teenager so couldn’t afford anything, but I recall that it seemed pretty impressive to me.

  13. How absolutely lovely to read a post populated by men from the Commonwealth. Growing up southwest of Roanoke, to a little boy it seemed like the largest city in the world. Now living near Denver, and having lived in DC, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, they still pale in comparison to the Star City. My mother went to college there and we often returned to visit Thalheimer’s and Miller & Rhodes, anytime we had to visit the city; and the S&W cafeteria downtown. Roanoke also had another fine men’s clothier, Davidsons. Was led to dressing well while watching my dad who clothed himself at Dan B. Waugh’s in Galax, and then later near my alma mater. Bought my first pair of Duck Heads in Bristol, although, on the wrong side of State Street. One final note, if anyone read and recalls, or can find on LexisNexis a copy of a piece in The Virginian-Pilot from the early 80s called “Bloodies and Guts” about the 4 school rivalries among UVA, Tech, VMI and William and Mary, it is a true delights, including a four way look at game day dress. Still have my much worn original. Here’s a pull quote: “How many UVA grads does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to call the electrician and one to mix the drinks.

  14. Great posts. Keep this one up for a while (please), CC.

    @Charlottesville
    I appreciated this:

    “…think the since-closed “Men’s Store” in Staunton and Eljo’s (still very much in operation in Charlottesville) were my primary influences as a teenager and young man learning how to dress. Both hewed very close to Ivy style with Sero, Southwick, Alden, Bass and the other traditional brands of the era. That was still how most professional men, young and old, dressed in Virginia in the 70s through the 90s and even into the early 2000s, although by then it was already fading.”

    How does Eljo’s look these days compared to, say, the early part of this century (and further back, of course)?

  15. As I’ve detailed on this site before, my experience in the Old Dominion consists of summers spent with cousins in Tidewater, furtive visits with a true teenage love at Chatham Hall, and then weekends visiting high school buddies during their years in Farmville.

    But per another poster’s comment above, my sense is that for the well-dressed gent, Brooks Brothers & Duck Heads have given over to Onward Reserve, Ledbury, and Sid Mashburn. All nice stuff, but it ain’t what it was.

  16. Carmelo Pugliatti | November 13, 2019 at 11:16 am |

    The 70s.
    It would be interesting a post about the change of proportions in lapels and patterns that Books Brothets and JPress did in 70s,the last decade of their splendor.

  17. I heard the Miller and Rhoads building downtown is being redeveloped as apartments, for anyone who wants to take their nostalgia to the next level.

  18. Charlottesville | November 13, 2019 at 1:29 pm |

    S.E. – Eljo’s seems to be thriving, although I think casual wear may play a larger role than formerly. However, there are lots of lovely repp ties, Alden shoes, Shetland sweaters, and of course khakis, cords and flannels. Their main business in tailored clothing these days is custom (Southwick and Empire do the store-label tailoring), catering to local businessmen and professionals, and they also do trunk shows. More sport coats than suits I believe, although they sell both. The owner’s son worked at J. Press for a while, and is now active in the business. They still keep some nice ready-to-wear blazers and tweeds on the racks though (and seersucker and madras in summer). Their signature look these days is a two-button, undarted (i.e., sack) coat with side vents, made by Southwick, which to my eye is reminiscent of the Ben Silver style(but not as pricey). It’s a very a nice look that I see on men at church and around town, although I prefer the hook-vent, 3/2 sack which is available in a few items off-the-rack or made-to-measure in thousands of tweedy permutations selected from the swatch books.

    Numbers – Glad to hear from someone else who remembers Alexander Dean. I did not know about Strohmeyer and Epps, but it sounds like the look I remember from Bill Kivlighan’s Men’s Store (or Men’s Shop perhaps?) at 23 West Beverley Street in Staunton in the late 70s. He was a great guy who was happy to advise a youngster with no money on the fine art of traditional dress, which I hoped one day to be able to afford. His former shop is now an Italian restaurant. The old wood-paneled alcoves that were once hung with Southwick suits, now frame local artwork and photographs and the drawers once stuffed with button-down shirts and repp, foulard and challis ties now house extra tablecloths and napkins.

    Joel — Davidson’s is also still in business and family owned. Up until a few years ago, I had a houndstooth tweed 3/2 sack sport coat that I bought there some time in the 90s. I think they too have gone the 2-button route, and expanded the casual and sportswear sections to suit the times, but I think they still would be considered pretty traditional.

    All of this local history stuff is fun, at least for us current and former Virginia folk.

  19. Eljo’s had a small store on Parham Rd in Henrico in the very late 80’s and early 90’s.

  20. I first started buying from Brooks Brother in 1959. At that time you visited the store in New York or called and ordered over the phone. I wore nothing but BB for years but sadly it simply is not the same store. It is not just the styles but more importantly the quality of the merchandise. The famous OCBD shirt is now, frankly, a joke. I dropped into Brooks in Atlanta a few years ago and asked the sales person if they had any 3 button sack coats and he had no idea what I was talking about. Just write BB off for any high quality traditional ivy clothing today. J Press is still good but the quality is dropping. The best place I’ve found now for this type of clothing is O’Connells.

  21. In 1980, Jos. A Bank in Washington,DC was on 19th st.,NW between L and M. On the second floor. Suits, sport coats and overcoats were on pipe racks. NO fancy decor- ambience be dammed. Brooks was across the street on the southeast corner of 19th and L. JAB was then a fine alternative for someone just starting out. Cheaper than Brooks. Very good sales. Most stuff made in USA. Had a women’s dept. They were headquartered in Baltimore, I think, and had a factory in Maryland. Arthur Adler was half a block east on L st. J Press moved next to Adler in ’88 or ’89. If I say I miss it, I mean the old way. You couldn’t give me their stuff now. Then again, I now think pretty much the same about Brooks Bros.

  22. LC: why is the OCBD shirt now a joke? they still make a mean must iron one in Garland, North Carolina, unlined collar and all. Now, their non iron stuff is a joke for sure, lower quality than Jos A Banks.

  23. It is being reported in WWD that Brooks is exploring options for selling itself.

  24. Charlottesville | November 14, 2019 at 11:16 am |

    Anonymous – Exactly as I remember Jos. A. Banks as well. I shopped at the JAB in Richmond in that era (also upstairs and no frills) or ordered from the catalog before moving up to Washington and Brooks Brothers in 1985. Like LL Bean at that time, they had good quality clothing, made in the US, for a price that even I could afford. After the subject came up a few days ago, I wore an old JAB Harris tweed 3/2 sack coat yesterday. Other than having its buttons replaced when they started coming apart a few years ago, it looks the same as it did when it left the store, probably around 1980. I don’t recall when they went down-market, but it must have been sometime in the 80s or early 90s. A quick Google search indicates that they were bought by Quaker Oats in 1981 and sold again in 1985. That could explain the decline.

    Numbers – Very interesting. I suppose that may or may not be good news. Hopefully a new owner would shut 75% of the brick-and-mortar stores and improve the quality of the clothing. There just is not a sufficient market for expensive tailored clothing today that there was even 20 years ago, much less in the 80s. Seems unlikely though. I hope it does not simply shut its doors or decline still further.

    Joel – True about the current BB OCBD. I just wish it had a pocket and cost about a third less.

  25. Excellent post, bringing back many great memories. Yes, in the ’80s the DC Brooks was on the corner of 19th & L (now it’s a Corner Bakery) It had a solid, timeless edifice befitting of Brooks at the time. Brooks opened their first store in Denver, downtown, with a similar edifice to the DC store – Denver had arrived! (it’s a Cheescake Factory now). Back in DC, Brooks was flanked by J Press at the other end of the block, and JAB around the corner. And a crowded little store called Marc Jeffries sold very affordable sack suits and cashmere topcoats (I still have mine) in the next block down from J Press, and I think the tailor where GHWB got his suits was across the street, on the second floor. Everything you could possibly need was right there in a two block radius, five blocks from the Metropolitan Club (and there was an Eljo’s in Old Town Alexandria). Keep ’em coming.

  26. Charlottesville, Roast- as long as we’re getting lost on memory lane, it would be unfair to leave out the Georgetown University Shop, Raleighs, and Lewis and Thomas Saltz. Throw in Britches of Georgetown while we’re at it.

  27. Charlottesville | November 15, 2019 at 11:19 am |

    Roast and Anonymous – I hadn’t thought about it before reading your comments, but 19th and L in DC in the late 80s was something like 44th and Madison in NY at that time, only on a smaller scale. There was even a Polo Shop a few blocks up Connecticut around 21st or so. My wife still has a coat from Britches, but whatever I bought there (shirts, ties and socks, mainly) is long gone. Until it developed a hole a few years ago, I also had a made-to-measure Southwick suit from Lewis & Thomas Saltz where I was told George F. Will bought his suits at that time. I also have a 1980s Polo suit from the DC shop, but rarely wear it now. However, the Press and Brooks labels are still prominent in my closet. The quality of materials and construction, coupled with the classic style assured that they would last.

  28. Max: I was in Richmond this summer and stayed in a lovely Hilton which occupies the old Miller and Rhoads store. There might be apartments up high, but the bottom is a hotel. Very nice. I have stayed at the Marriott across the street many times for political events, but it was my first time at the Hilton. had lunch down on Shockoe Slip, so it was a wonderful time all around.

  29. Anonymous – Exactly! I still have a Troy Guild shirt from Georgetown University Shop, and how could I forget Britches.
    Charlottesville – Perfect analogy to 44th & Madison.

  30. Charlottesville | November 15, 2019 at 4:58 pm |

    Joel – Glad you had a good time in Richmond. Shockoe Slip has some good spots to eat and is where the great men’s store Alexander Dean was located in the late 70s/early 80s. It is also, at Sam Miller’s seafood and oyster bar across the street from AD, where I started drinking martinis as a newly legal drinker.

    Roast and Anonymous – I also remember Arthur Adler. Similar to Lewis & Thomas Saltz, and also in the same area. It may have been Adler, rather than Saltz where Mr. Will reportedly shopped.

  31. Charles Frank Moorman | December 3, 2019 at 3:43 am |

    I well remember Britches of Georgetown when I lived in DC in the early 80s. I bought a great grey herringbone worsted wool trousers there which I still have and wear when I M five to ten pounds lighter. Great shirts and ties as well and it is a shame they are gone, britches great outdoors had the warthog polo shirts in many want colors and the warthog motif added a bit of mirth during the ” Polo wars” of the 1990s.

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