G. Bruce Boyer gave Ivy Style permission to digitize this chapter from his 1985 book “Elegance.” It is based on an article that originally appeared in the May 1981 issue of Town & Country.
By G. Bruce Boyer
When it phased out its custom tailoring department, the story was carried on the front page of the New York Times. The Daily News Record has called it the greatest men’s store in the world. It has a history going back over a century and a half and is in fact not so much a clothing store as an institution of American life. There is really nothing to compare with Brooks Brothers.
And of course, it is not just a men’s store any longer. In fact, it was something of a sociological event when Brooks, the bastion of masculine conservatism, opened a women’s department back in 1976. Not that women and Brooks discovered each other then for the first time, you understand, since the ladies had been lurking about the store for years, making off with raincoats and Shetland sweaters, ordering Bermuda shorts and polo shirts from the boys’ department. In 1949 Vogue photographed a woman in a pink Brooks Brothers button-down shirt. The decision to start a women’s department simply reflected an awareness of the arrival of the businesswoman and Brooks Brothers’ determination to accommodate her. After all, the firm has dressed her husband since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Long before a Mary McCarthy heroine, in her short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” picked up such a gentleman on a train ride, the relaxed Establishment Brooks look had more than a whiff of the right stuff. Once suspected an old school tie stuffed in the pocket, a library crammed with well-thumbed English essayists, and possibly a full-bent briar. Nothing outré, nothing exaggerated or self-conscious. The Brooks Brothers suit seemed to peg a man somewhere between Wall Street and his country house, by way of the Ivy League.
Interestingly enough, people who customarily shop at Brooks aren’t really clotheshorses and don’t like to spend time worrying about how they look, which is of course the ideal. They let Brooks worry for them, and Brooks has always worried wonderfully. There is the story about a customer who phoned up to ask if the store sold nightcaps. The unflappable salesclerk calmly asked, “With or without tassel, sir?”
Brooks Brothers is the fortress of sartorial sensibility for Establishment clothing. Back in 1818 when Henry Sands Brooks, the son of a Connecticut physician, first opened a clothing store at the southeast corner of Catherine and Cherry Streets in lower Manhattan, things were perhaps different, but not that much different. Then as now, the store was situated in the center of New York’s thriving business district and sold its quality clothes to the gentry, the prosperous, and the professional.
Henry Brooks acquired his new premises at an auction sale held at the Tontine Coffee House in Wall Street. He had bid the considerable sum of $15,250 for the building and grounds, and at the age of forty- six he embarked on his determined career to sell quality men’s clothing. It was his plan (as stated in an advertisement he ran in the Morning Courier) to “have on hand a very large stock of ready-made clothing, just manufactured with a due regard to fashion, and embracing all the various styles of the day.” While Henry Brooks made clothing to measure as well, he should rightly be considered the pioneer of ready-made clothes, an innovation of great historical importance.
The building at Catherine and Cherry Streets served Henry Brooks well. After his death in 1833, it was refurbished and enlarged by his sons Henry, Daniel, John, Elisha, and Edward-who adopted the name “Brooks Brothers” in 1850 — and two new stores were opened: one large four-story building at Broadway and Grant Street in 1858, and another in South Union Square in 1869. The Broadway store became the principal place of business for the firm during the Civil War years, and it was probably from this store that Abraham Lincoln ordered his frock coats — one of which he was wearing when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on that fateful April evening in 1865, just a few days after Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House. The Brooks Brothers label on the inside of the coat was embellished with an embroidered design of a bald eagle, holding in its beak a flowing pennant inscribed “One Country, One Destiny.”
During the War between the States, Brooks made uniforms for the Union Army and numbered Generals Grant, Sherman, Hooker, and Sheridan among its customers. Grant was probably wearing a Brooks Brothers suit at Appomattox, and he continued to to be dressed by the firm when he became president. In fact, practically every president since Lincoln (and several before) has worn clothes from Brooks Brothers, including both Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford. Other famous customers have included the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudolph Valentino, Clark Gable, John O’Hara, Andy Warhol, J.P. Morgan, and most of the Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts. Morgan in fact bought his clothes from Brooks his entire life, and even as a mature and awesomely remote man he was called “Jack” by the salesman who had known and dressed him since he was a tot. Hard to imagine, that.
As the center of commerce and business moved farther and farther north in Manhattan, so did Brooks Brothers: to Broadway and Bond Street in 1874, to Broadway and 22d Street in 1884, and finally, in 1915, to 44th and Madison. This present flagship store was specifically designed for the firm by the architects LaFarge & Morris and is still considered a fine example of quiet elegance in commercial design, perfectly in keeping with its very proper product and service.
The firm grew and prospered, with the late-nineteenth-century industrial elite as favored customers, and continued to grow as New York became the business mecca of the early twentieth century. Its customers included politicians and generals, old-guard bankers, and nouveau-riche manufacturing barons. In 1903, with four of Henry Brooks’s grandsons and six employees as principals, the firm incorporated. Six years later the first branch store was opened at Newport, Rhode Island, the glittering summer resort of the epoch. By the time another branch store opened in Boston in 1928, Brooks Brothers was already a venerable institution, with a copious general catalog that included such items as vicuna overcoats ($45), silk top hats ($8), tweed shooting capes ($35), and Russian leather brogues ($10), as well as complete outfits for sport, day wear, and evening wear. The firm also offered a complete range of uniforms for army and navy officers and complete outfitting for chauffeurs, butlers, footmen, and pages.
Since then Brooks has solidified its image as outfitters to democracy’s ruling classes, the managerial elite. In 1946, coincident to the passing of the last member of the Brooks family, a great-great-great grandson of Henry Sands Brooks, the firm was taken over by Garfinkel, the retailing corporation in Washington, D. C. Some customers, apprised of the change, feared the worst — that the store’s traditional and personal quality might suffer under the thumb of a large, impersonal corporation. But as it turns out, Brooks is allowed to go its merry way, dressing gentlemen as it always has. One reason, one may conjecture, is that it works. Brooks’s annual sales in the past thirty years have risen from $5.6 million to over $140 million at the end of 1980. And the firm has expanded to include in addition to its main store in Manhattan twenty-four branches in this country. Additionally, in 1980 the first foreign branch opened in Tokyo, with a projection of eight more to open in Japan within the next half-dozen years.
One particularly interesting aspect of this expansion is that whether the store is in Tokyo, Dallas, or Scarsdale, there is no concession made to regional taste whatever. Of course, there’s no need to stockpile Harris tweed overcoats in Ft. Lauderdale, but apart from the dictates of climate, each Brooks store carries identical merchandise. The Brooks Brothers man is the same the world over, and it is an approach to dress that is basically American.
The line, whether for jackets or shirts, is freer flowing, more natural and loosely cut, than European clothing, which is generally more shaped and contoured. A Brooks jacket is often said to be not felt on the body, since it falls easily from the shoulders and has as little padding as a jacket can have and still have a constructed appearance. This look solidified in the 1940s, and Brooks has stuck with it and promoted it through all the ups and downs of masculine fashion trends, including the great Mod Moment of the late 1960s, which swamped any number of lesser outfitters and left little but jeans shops in its wake.
While Brooks can honorably be called a bastion of full-fig conservatism, it cannot be considered either reactionary or blinded to trends itself. The fact is, if the trend survived to become a cherished fixture of the successful man’s wardrobe, Brooks probably started it. In its role as tasteful innovator, Brooks is perhaps the greatest single influence on American menswear. During its formative years, there were undoubtedly dozens of styling and merchandising innovations of consequence that have not been documented for posterity. But after 1890, we are on sure and safe ground. Brooks Brothers, probably the first clothing store in the States, and the first to offer ready-to-wear clothing, was also the first to introduce: the foulard tie (from England, in the 1890s); the Shetland sweater (from England, about 1904); madras fabric (pre-1900); Harris tweed (from Scotland, about 1900); the polo coat (from England, about 1910); coconut straw hats (1928); seersucker and cotton cord suiting (1930); and lightweight Dacron-cotton washable suiting (1955).
In the matter of shirting the firm has given particular pleasures. In 1900 Mr. John Brooks, who had retired as president of the firm in 1896, vacationed in England. At a polo match he noticed the players wearing shirts on which the collar points were buttoned to the shirt- front (it was explained to him that this technique kept the collar points from flapping into the face), and he sent one of these shirts back home, where it was introduced by Brooks. The firm still refers to it as their “polo” collar. It was, half a century later, the shirt chosen by DuPont to initiate the wash-and-wear concept of clothing they had invented with their Dacron-cotton blended fabric; it was clear to DuPont that only Brooks could give this fabric the prestige and credibility needed to put it across. And in these days, when the change-for-the-sake-of-change approach of fashion is more and more being questioned, prestige is what Brooks has most of.
There was a great story in Lawrence Van Gelder’s Metropolitan Diary in the New York Times a couple of years ago about an important-looking, white-haired, well-dressed gentleman standing on a Park Avenue corner, talking with a friend and waiting for the light to change. The white-haired fellow could be heard talking proudly about his first grandson-his first, apparently, after a succession of granddaughters. “Can’t wait to get him into Brooks Brothers,” he said.
“Why haven’t you?” the friend asked.
“I will, I will,” came the reply, “just as soon as he stops wetting his pants.”
A charming story based not only on the history of Brooks, but on the fact that until World War II all men’s clothing stores were boy’s outfitters as well, both because styling did not differ very much and because an establishment endeavored to keep a customer for life. Now Brooks is one of a very few clothiers who follow this tradition. And since there are more than one or two salesmen who have been “on the floor” for over thirty years, many a child has been taken from short pants to maturity by the same clerk. This illustrates one or two outstanding features about the firm, to my mind: that there is a consistent image of styling and quality that a man can learn and build on, and that salesmen and customers can develop good working relationships over a long period of time. Loyalty and integrity form the two sides of this relationship, and of course both sides profit. This seems to be a difficult lesson for others to learn, living as we do in a world of fast cars, fast food, fast marriages, trade up, trade in, and move on.
The other feature that is unique to Brooks is the “Own Make” designation, which means exactly what it says: manufactured in Brooks’s own three factories, which together employ about eight hundred people. The shirt factory is in Paterson, New Jersey; the neckwear plant and tailored-clothing plant are both in Long Island City, New York. The lamentable decision to end bespoke tailoring was made in 1976, attributed to a difficulty in securing enough qualified tailors. In reality the custom-work never did account for more than one percent or two of business, but it was symbolically considered by many to mark the passing of an era as sadly and surely as the passing of great men. There is still the special order department, in which a jacket, trousers, or shirt can be individually made from a standard pattern altered to fit the customer.
Considering the well-established Brooks Brothers image and the legendary loyalty of its customers, the curious thing is why the firm bothers to advertise at all. Indeed, many years ago there was a president of the firm who did look askance at advertising in general, on the grounds, as he put it, that “we don’t want the kind of trade that has to be enticed with sales and flashy goods.” Then again, not to advertise might seem that bit standoffish, and the Brooks ads are so discreet anyway that they seem merely to serve as gentle reminders that the season has changed and perhaps we may be wanting to brighten the coming days with a new necktie or something. Absolutely civilized.
Which is finally what Brooks is about. Civilized is their bottom line, and that means proper and responsible. Which calls to mind another little anecdote. After Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic, he was welcomed to New York by the greatest ticker-tape parade in the city’s history. The tailoring department at Brooks worked all through the night making the suit that he would wear in the parade. This had been arranged by the mayor of New York, “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, a good Brooks Brothers customer himself. When the suit was delivered to Lindbergh, the mayor suggested to the firm that the publicity should be adequate payment for the clothing. The company replied that publicity was not in its area of interest, and the matter of the bill remained.