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.
Excellent article. Thanks for posting it, and for securing Mr. Boyer’s imprimatur.
This is a great article. Boyer articulates the”something” that makes Brooks Brothers what it is splendidly.
Lets hope the Italians who are running the joint now keep this in mind. Some of there stuff has been looking alittle too Euro lately.
Great read. I can’t wait to see what other Boyer gems you have for us. Thanks.
Thanks for the Christmas present.
Wonderful article, I’ve recently started using Brookes’ London branch on Regent Street, long may the Brookes Brothers tradition continue
This is a splendid article. Boyer articulates the”something” with the intention of makes Brooks Brothers could you repeat that? It is splendidly.
Lets hope the Italians who are running the establishment currently keep this in mind. Some of here stuff has been looking alittle too Euro lately.
Several years ago, for some reason, I was curious as to whether Brooks owned the building at 346 Madison Avenue @ 44th street. I did a search and found it was owned by a commercial real estate company here in Manhattan. They obtained my name and, many years later, I constantly receive e-mails from them for one reason or another.
I lived away from New York from 1960 until 2000. I had taken a year off from college to work at Brooks in the tie, belt and glove department for the buyer, Stan Birdsey, a former Royal Marine. For all those years living away from the City, whenever I thought of New York, it was always of the 44th @ Madison area and Brooks, Press, the Biltmore Hotel and the lobby clock, the Harvard and Yale Clubs and Grand Central. Sui generis.
I’m not an expert on the topic of Brooks Brothers, but from what I recall, significant change came when Frank T. Reilly departed.
Anyone care to comment or elaborate on my comment above?
The article was from 1981 when all of the “verities” about BB
were still “verities”, more or less. The ensuing decline in the next
three decades has been cataloged and commented upon for years.
The post begins” When it phased out its custom tailoring department, the story was carried on the front page of the New York Times.” https://www.nytimes.com/1976/05/08/archives/brooks-bros-will-end-custom-tailoring-brooks-is-ending-custom.html Which was under the direction of Frank T. Reilly.
The only thing that is constant is change… which has included Brooks Brothers.
I still buy their must iron OCBD’s and their all cotton boxers. Otherwise, I’m not interested. The quality is just not there and the Trad look is gone.
Yes, we all know this but no one seems to get tired of saying it. Even the author of this piece.
I’ll have a big Q&A coming up hopefully soon that will shed some light on the changes that came in the late ’80s when M&S took over. Interview is done but needs a follow-up as well as transcribing, which will be a major task. Stay tuned.
When I was about to leave Brooks in 1960 to get married and return to college in Baltimore, Frank Reilly called me into his office and spent quite a while trying to talk me out of leaving. The company was just opening the Pittsburgh store. He regaled me with all the company expansion plans to add to the two NY stores, Boston, Chicago and partial stores in LA and San Francisco. He offered to pay for my college expenses at Columbia or NYU plus an immediate promotion if I stayed. Truthfully, in my mind, the pay was not enough for the plans I had for my life back then.
Mr. Reilly always wore the same dark blue suit, same solid blue necktie, white OCBD, black cap toes. Not the same obviously but identical. These days I pass 346 Madison Avenue often. Always, always I wonder how my life would have been different had I stayed.
Interesting… thanks for sharing that.
Vern, I just posted a message on our Facebook page to see if anyone has memories of Mr. Reilly and could write a few paragraphs. Could you search your memory for anything else and email it to me? I’ll put it up in a post with his obituary.
The BB on Regent Street has left me with a feeling of cold dread on the very few occasions I’ve gone in. A bit like Marks & Sparks (apart from the food hall). The clothing somehow all looks forlorn. RL at No.1 New Bond Street, on the other hand, leaves my bank manager feeling that cold dread.
John Carlos – Boxers are my main BB purchases these days as well, along with a few pairs of argyle socks, an ancient madder tie and a pair of pajamas all purchased during the sales. Haven’t bought any tailored clothing there for some years.
I think many of us who first came to know Brooks before the Marks & Spencer takeover were formed stylistically to some degree by the sensibilities Mr. Boyer writes about so well. Along with the example of professional men I saw around me when I was young (who usually dressed in ivy style), and a bit of English style gleaned from brief visits and television programs like All Creatures Great and Small, Brooks Brothers set the tone for what I have long considered dressing well. Thankfully, the clothes tend to last, so between the old stuff from Brooks, and some more recent purchases from J. Press, I am pretty much set except for replacing the occasional shirt, socks and underwear.
Charlottesville, I’ve never shopped at Press. Maybe I should? I’ve turned to O’Connell’s and Ben Silver and with the latter’s prices my purchases have mostly been sale items. To answer an earlier post of yours, Little Rhine is still going strong as is the Menger Hotel/Bar where it is said Teddy Roosevelt formed the Roughriders.
Just as if Mr Deasy my old Latin master had corrected my unseen translation for me. Excellent!
John Carlos – I would certainly recommend stopping in at J. Press the next time you are in NY, Washington, or New Haven. I find that the quality of tailored clothing is high, and the service is friendly, professional and knowledgeable. I understand that their higher end suits and sport coats are made by Southwick, which should be similar to what O’Connell’s carries in style, fit and price, and the current sale they are having on line is really great. I picked up a pair of taupe, covert-cloth, flat-front trousers for about half price. They are being altered locally and I can’t wait to wear them with tweed sport coats.
I have a couple of ties from O’Connell’s but have never ordered anything more substantial although from what I understand their suits and sport coats are impeccable. There is much to like at Ben Silver as well, but like you I find their prices too much for me outside of the (fairly rare) sales, and I prefer the 3/2 button stance to their standard 2-button model.
Glad to hear that Little Rhine and the Menger are prospering. And thanks for your earlier mention of Hotel Emma in the old Pearl Brewery building. I hope I can get back to San Antonio one day. The cold weather and gusty winds outside my window make me wish I were there now.
Boyer is such a splendid writer. His moves are the antithesis of today’s Michael Pollan (Pollan is great, I am not slighting him) and his “learner’s journey.” Pollan said recently, something to the effect of, “I like to start my books as a beginner, because no one likes an expert; no one wants to be lectured at.” Well, I submit that Boyer defied this proclamation 40 years prior. He is obviously the expert—from the opening lament of the tailoring department to the final hilarious and succinct metonymic summation of the essay—but he never lectures, he brings you on the journey with resolute detail, and it is done with the same civilized gentlemanly style he evokes about Brooks Brothers. Boyer is just a real treasure.