Brooks Brothers’ Buttoned-Down Radicalism

This weekend I received an email from Brooks Brothers with a surprisingly terse subject line. No long-winded winter sale announcements, such as “plus free shipping on orders over $200.” This one simply said “Be Radical.”

Was Brooks introducing a line of X-Games-inspired athleticwear? I opened the message and found that the mailer was a plug fior the brand’s iconic buttondown shirts. The ad outlines the shirt’s origins — English polo players — with a gentle reminder about how Brooks made this (a different kind of athleticwear) the quintessentially American business shirt. Paul Winston has called the Brooks Brothers oxford “The single greatest invention in the history of menswear.”

Yeah they don’t make them like they used to, as the lined collars don’t roll (as seen in the image above) like in the old days. Of course I wasn’t around then so it doesn’t really bother me.

Still, when I mentioned to friend and colleague Bruce Boyer that I was looking into getting a couple of custom shirts, unable to find Bengal-stripe types with a slim fit, no non-iron chemical treatment, and a straight collar for use with a collar pin, Bruce suggested I try the legendary Tom Davis, who’s headed up Brooks’ made-to-measure shirt program for decades (and where you can get unlined buttondowns). He’s been on the Ivy Style editorial calendar for three years now, so I think it’s time I finally sit down with the guy and soak up some anecdotes. Stay tuned.

Finally, speaking of Brooks and radicalism, on the same day that I received the shirt email, Brooks showed up in a Google Alert. It was another one of those cliché-dependent newspaper reporters using “Brooks Brothers” as cultural shorthand for conservative and establishment (in this case, referring to Mitt Romney’s entourage).

Of course, these associations have dogged — or boosted — Brooks since the prosperity of the Eisenhower era, the rise in college admissions and the proliferation of corporate America. In 1950’s “Guys And Dolls,” Frank Loesser writes of “the breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers type,” exactly what the heroine is looking for.

Or thinks she’s looking for. — CC

29 Comments on "Brooks Brothers’ Buttoned-Down Radicalism"

  1. I got the same email as well and I am a big fan of the BB must iron OCBD. In a way I’m happy Brooks Brothers embraced one of it’s iconic products and I think it’s a smart marketing move.

  2. Incredulous | January 15, 2012 at 9:12 pm |

    “FOR decades, customers called Brooks Brothers ‘B-squared’,and not only because both words begin with ‘b’. Brooks Brothers had been an unhip haberdashery for so long that even in the 1950 musical ”Guys and Dolls’,’ Sky Masterson dismissed the ideal man of his love interest as ‘a Scarsdale Galahad, a breakfast-eating, Brooks Brothers type’.”

    Being “unhip” is a mark of distinction.

  3. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nore less.”

    American Heritage Dictionary:

    but•ton-down
    adj.
    also but•toned-down Conservative, conventional, or unimaginative: “a colorful character in the buttoned-down, dull-gray world of business” (Newsweek).

    Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

    but•ton-down
    or but•toned–down : conservatively traditional or conventional; especially : adhering to conventional norms in dress and behavior

  4. Country Gent | January 16, 2012 at 5:54 am |

    The Brooks Bros OCBD, is one of the worst BD collars I’ve bought in recent years. Even more so than the new style Ralph Lauren ones on the custom fit shirts. I would seriously recommend avoiding both if you don’t want to be disappointed. Some of the new BB dress shirts still carry a handsome enough roll, but without buying you won’t know if if they have been interfaced. These rolls are uncomfortable, and my customers complain about them regularly. If you are looking to buy a new shirt I recommend Gant, The rolls are good and decent, and most importantly soft. Why choose to be uncomfortable?

  5. Richard Meyer | January 16, 2012 at 6:33 am |

    The BB MTM buttondown shirts I tried were quite poor. Mercer is infinitely better, with the same collar roll of the long-ago much lamented BB buttondowns.

  6. Regimental Stripe | January 16, 2012 at 7:54 am |

    Believe it or not, there are those of us who eschewed the billowing, almost clownish look of BB’s old, unlined buttondown collar and far prefer the new lined collar. We used to slightly reposition the buttons, to deflate the ballooning appearance of the roll. Yes, we also prefer the non-iron version. It presents a far neater appearance which can only be achieved on the must-iron version if one has them triple starched.

  7. NaturalShoulder | January 16, 2012 at 8:01 am |

    I had the same experience as Mr. Meyer when I ordered some BB MTM button down shirts. If I had known it was possible to order an unlined collar, the result may have been better.

  8. Iconic.

    I wish they had never moved away from the unfused, unlined collar. I still have some of mine from the early 80’s… And, they had so many more standard colors back then. Whites and blues saw more use, so those oldies are gone, but I still have pink, peach, yellow, green (needs to have the collar turned), ecru, and stone. I picked up some white and blue LE Hyde Parks in the early 90’s – back when they were still USA made – that replaced the BB’s. They’re nice, but just not the same. I’ve been eyeing the Mercers…

  9. Country Gent | January 16, 2012 at 9:47 am |

    The whole idea of the BD is undermined by it not being soft. The look of a collar with anything less than a 3-finger roll is hideous. No we don’t want to look like clowns either, but believe it or not, there is a sweet spot. Small, lined collars look terrible over ties. They don’t sit under knitwear. What people should really understand about the idea of short-cut (in every sense of the word,) modern shirts with stingy collars, is they are preferable for a company to make as they are cheap. This ‘look’ then gets sold to the majority of the clueless. Who have no real critical thinking of themselves or how they look. They just want that ‘radical’ look. It’s not radical. It is a manipulation of a beautiful thing, that can get sold to idiots at a greater mark-up. Sorry if I don’t sing the praises of modern Brooks. But it’s a joke.

  10. Great article on Brooks of which I have always been a keen advocate. My question to our author and audience:

    Why are BB shirts no longer made int he USA?

    In my view, a heritage brand like Brooks owes its buyers past and future to making sure the the button down oxford shirts are made in the States. Making them the way the used to is still possible. Customers will pay the difference. What we want is authenticity and integrity in the products.

  11. MTM. Lots of options. New England Shirt does a great job with the OCBD. Ask for a four inch collar (it will shrink with washings) then move the buttons. A wider than typical tie space helps. The roll of old cannot be replicated with a lined collar.

  12. jeff volimas | January 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm |

    Question for the other commentators, why no mention of the J.Press OCBD?,

  13. @Andrew While lacking the above mentioned collar characteristics, etc., the OCBD is made in the USA along with some other shirts at various price points. Go to the BB site and you’ll be able to see what is made here or overseas.

  14. @Andrew

    Any difference between buying shirts made by Third World immigrants in the States and Third Worlders abroad?

  15. I have such a short neck that my lower jaw creates a roll on any OCBD shirt.

  16. Isn’t it probably the case that the roll was originally a defect resulting from fabric shrinkage in the body of the shirt so that the collar buttons rode up and towards the placket (thus creating the roll), and that the first buttondown collars lay perfectly flat when introduced by Brooks Brothers?

  17. Bill Stephenson | January 17, 2012 at 2:16 am |

    Please regard Mr Meyer’s post. It is possible to avoid a lot of angst by just going with Mercer.

    Others may be as good, but time and money usually wasted trying to find the perfect substitute, and it may not exist. Examples above show that MTM may not work out, and for less $ and the same time, you could get a Mercer.

    For the Ivy purist, not much stands out like the perfect collar roll. As is pointed out above, many are completely wrong, and patently obvious,

    Examples are too short, stiff fusing, and because of different vendors sometimes the collar roll on RL and JP roll inwards, rather than outward, as they should. The uninitiated don’t know the difference, and don’t care. Probably asked wife or GF to please get me some button down shirts.

    Another jolt, is the cuff with two buttons to tighten the cuff. Sorry, but if you love ivy, becoming anal is the price you pay.

    Hyde Park and BB used to be great. Now, a roll of the dice. If you care where shirt is made, you will be off on another journey. Mercer’s not made in US. It seems that the only goal should be does the product work for you?

  18. This would be a good opportunity to finally try this:

    http://www.ivy-style.com/tips-from-charlie-how-to-rock-the-roll.html

  19. My button downs are off the rack BBs. However, I have used their M2M service for my dress shirts and have never been disappointed. If there was ever a problem, it was fixed (extra shirts in a color) I had some shirts made in the Fall and was able to get my guy to come to my house with a couple of swatch books.

  20. Oh, I start sweating at the mention of no-iron fabric

  21. Mr. Stephenson,

    The first sentence of the long wall of text at Mercer & Son’s website is this: “Made in U.S.A.”

    The Trad has a shot of the label here.

    I’m pretty sure that they make their shirts in America.

  22. Reformed Reactionary | January 17, 2012 at 11:54 pm |

    @K

    You obviously have never tried BB’s non-iron fabric. It’s a godsend.

  23. After having worn the Brooks Brothers button down through Amherst and Yale, and then 30 years of work, I have finally given up. The non-iron treatment killed it. Apart from this horrible “innovation” on most BB shirts (but not, I’ll concede, on some Oxfords), the overall quality is uneven. What happened to the pinpoint? I now buy my button down’s exclusively at J. Press.

    By the way, I received that ad too. I marveled at the nubby hand of the fabric seen in close up. I love that fabric, but I’ve only been able to purchase white button down’s in that fabric from J. Press. I was lucky to pick up a couple a few years ago (got a nice compliment about the fabric from a tailor in Hong Kong), but I haven’t seen it at J. Press since, and never at BB.

  24. I can commend Brooks MTM shirts sold by Tom Davis.

    Mr. Davis is probably one of the most senior salesman at Brooks’s main store, and he KNOWS classic clothes. I have used him for years.

    First, NO ONE except Brooks has the same quality oxford cloth. Other shirtmakers have oxford cloth, but their generic fabrics do not equal Brooks’s distinctive color, look, and hand. Brooks makes a tight and smooth weave. I have had oxford cloth shirts by Individualized Shirts and Mercer, and neither has the same quality fabric as Brooks.

    I tried Mercer, and my biggest disappointment was the quality of the fabric. I am not saying that it was bad fabric. It just was not the same quality as Brooks. I also feel its workmanship was a notch below Brooks.

    It is also worthwhile to note that the Brooks MTM and some of the RTW shirts are made by Brooks’s own factory in Georgia.

    I have been pleased with the Brooks MTM which is being turned-out by that factory. As for Brooks’s non-iron RTW made in Asia that is a different matter. Those shirts are inferior, and I wouldn’t use them as dust rags (too rough!).

    Good luck.

  25. I purchased a dozen slim fit, BB’s, OCBD shirts back in 2007. I’ve had many brands over the years and out of all, I’m most happy with these. They still continue to show very little sign of wear.

    Instead of allowing the cleaners to ruin, I mean launder your shirts, try doing them yourselves.
    I wash them in warm water, using a small amount of detergent and a small amount of Clorex II. In addition, I always put them through a double rinse.

    When complete, I hang them to dry on plastic hangers which keeps them from the destructive heat of a dryer. Later, I iron them with a steam iron on a full cotton setting, using a spray bottle of water, and a minimal amount of starch.

    Last of all rotate them in your closet, so they don’t always end-up on your back.

    Good luck!

  26. On the issue of longevity, my Brooks MTM from 2000 is starting to fray at the collar and cuffs. My newer Brooks oxford shirts are in fine condition.

  27. I’d never given it much thought before, but OCBD’s explanation about the roll originally being a defect sounds quite logical, given the propensity of all-cotton cloth to shrink even more in the past than it does today.

    Another point: Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those who are vehemently anti-Brooks Brothers non-iron oxford cloth shirts have, in fact, never tried them, but are opposed on principle. I can assure them that they will not be deprived of the pleasure of ironing because BB’s “non-iron” shirts most certainly need ironing. I particularly like their non-iron pinpoint shirts.

  28. @camford:

    What gets me is guys who reject non-iron BB oxfords because they’re not authentic and then wear must-iron oxfords in the slim or extra-slim version, as if that were authentic Trad.

    How can one eschew non-iron shirts and then wear gigolo-cut shirts?

  29. Country Gent’s comment is spot on!

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