I’ve previously presented two articles on Brooks Brothers from the troubled Marks & Spencer era. This one, from four decades earlier, was featured in the September, 1950 issue of the Esquire-owned digest Coronet, and also reflects a time of corporate management change.
In 1946 Brooks Brothers was bought by the Washington, DC department store known as Garfinkel’s. The new president John C. Wood put customer fears of radical change to rest when he declared that he would sooner be seen wearing a zoot suit in Times Square than tamper with Brooks policies.
The amazing thing about Brooks Brothers and its image is how slowly things changed over the years. I believe Brooks Brothers customers over 40 feel some of the old mystique and will recognize something of the Brooks Brothers presented here.
This article from the halcyon days of Brooks Brothers is bound to cause some nostalgia, whether for a place remembered but now lost, or for a place one wishes he new. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
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There’s Only One Brooks Brothers
By Lester David
Coronet, September 1950
Outfitting presidents of the of the U. S. has been almost-routine business during much of the 132-year history of Brooks Brothers, oldest and most famous clothing store in America.
When Abraham Lincoln was shot as he sat in a box of Ford’s Theater in Washington, he was wearing a new Prince Albert coat, waistcoat, trousers, and overcoat just delivered to him by the New York firm. When Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt took their oaths of office, they were attired in new suits fitted by Brooks. When Franklin D. Roosevelt met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945, the great Navy cape he wore on the 6,000-mile air-sea journey carried the Brooks label.
Founded in 1818 when Manhattan was a seacoast town of less than 125,000 population, the store has kept some of the country’s (and the world’s) most noted personages in shoes, socks, pajamas, shirts, ties, hats, and suits. And some — their identity is a well-kept secret —in nightshirts and tasseled caps!
Diplomats and prize fighters, dukes and bankers, Cabinet members and theatrical luminaries stroll every day through the ten-story building on Madison Avenue. The sight of Secretary of State Dean Acheson trying on a new overcoat, or Clark Gable testing a new pair of shoes, or the Duke of Windsor undecided between a red or green dressing gown causes scarcely a flurry. The reason is simply that the store itself is a national legend, as noted in its own right as any of its patrons. (Continue)
In 1993, five-odd years under new owners Marks & Spencer, now widely agreed to have veered the brand drastically off course, Brooks Brothers took out a six-page advertorial in The Atlantic Monthly celebrating its 175 years in business.
Literary heavyweight George Plimpton was hired to write the text, which combines history with everyday goings-on at the Madison Avenue flagship.
Like our previous post, containing an article on Brooks from 1991, the advertorial is an interesting PR move at a time when the company was struggling to redefine itself.
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Under The Golden Fleece
By George Plimpton
Asked to check out Brooks Brothers on its 175th anniversary, I thought it best to outfit myself for the visit from head to foot in their clothing. It was not too difficult, since I have been a patron for years, as was my father before me, and his father before him. I missed out only on the shoes. I have an unnaturally wide foot, a triple E, and their shoe department stops at a single E, shoes that would have caused a wince at every step if I could have squeezed into them. But the rest was all theirs — socks, underwear, tie, a white button-down shirt, and a slightly rumpled seersucker suit, which was appropriate because it was a hot summer day. The blue flag with its legend attesting to “175 Years of American Style” hung listlessly in the heat over Forty-fourth Street.
Once inside the pleasant cool of the store, I was taken in hand by Wayne Sheridan, a salesman on the first floor. He has been employed by Brooks Brothers for thirty-five years. That is by no means remarkable. Indeed, the employment record is held by salesman Joseph Mancini, who retired in 1992 after sixty-six years of service. Another salesman, Frederick Webb, worked in the store selling suits up through his eighties. Among his steady customers (“see you” patrons, in the jargon of the store) were members of the Morgan banking family. He served five generations of them during his sixty-five years of service. He could never bring himself to judge when the young Morgans reached an age when it was no longer appropriate for him to call them by their first names: no easy solution. So he simply continued on a first-name basis with Morgan family members throughout their lives.
Mr. Sheridan, being on the first floor, which features ties, shirts, and men’s accessories, does not have quite the “see you” patronage situation enjoyed by the suit salesmen on the fourth. But he told me he had once sold a button-down shirt to Joan Collins. He remembers John F. Kennedy in his senatorial days, walking past the tie counter with his hands in his coat pockets. (Continue)
The March, 1991 M Magazine article — of which scans are presented below after the jump (click “Continue”) — is our second article on Brooks Brothers during the Marks & Spencer era.
Along with the previous one from Forbes, the article is part of a cache I collected while doing a paper for a Business 101 course. I titled my paper “The Fleecing of Brooks Brothers?” and chose the company as a subject because as a customer I had a vested interest in the changes going on.
Some of the changes make sense. Wardrobe sizing — the ability to buy separate pants in different waist sizes — allowed Brooks Brothers to fit people with non-standard drops. And wholesaling Brooks Brothers shirts to independent retailers opened the product to customers who were geographically isolated.
So what went wrong? I was uneasy from the start, considering that the best thing the press could say about Marks & Spencer was that they supplied Margaret Thatcher’s underwear. There were brash advertisements, new products, and perception of chasing a younger and hipper customer. There seemed to be a break with the past, and longtime customers lost confidence.
Richard Press, vice president of J. Press at the time, was spot on when he observed, “A number of customers are coming to us who can’t find what they want at places they’ve been shopping in the past. These customers have an allegiance to classical American clothing. Some of our competitors don’t seem to have confidence in that anymore.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Christopher Sharp lives in upstate New York. He is a former community-newspaper reporter who has served in the Navy Reserve for over 20 years, currently supporting the Global War on Terror. He recently acquired the Brooks Brothers cigar label pictured above. (Continue)
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most erudite and entertaining tomes on menswear: G. Bruce Boyer’s “Elegance.”
Ivy-Style continues its efforts to digitize Boyer’s work for the Internet and a new generation of readers. This latest offering addresses the polo coat, the so-called “aristocrat of topcoats.”
Below are some words of reflection submitted by Boyer, followed by the article, which originally appeared in the July, 1981 issue of Town & Country.
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I’ve been reading the latest editions of the fashion mags — as a professional critic, I’m desperate for any laughs I can get — and have noticed that the in fashion places this season seem to be either Kenya or India. I can’t speak for Kenya, but the literature is full of fashion that’s come out of the British Raj.
I once actually met a grandson of the Maharajah of Jodhpur — he was wearing a diamond on a chain around neck, and the stone was about the size of a small ice cube — and I asked him about jodhpurs. “The British stole that idea from my grandfather,” he pointedly said. The conversation drifted a bit after that.
But the sartorial heritage of that Indian-invented game of polo is still very much around, even when it comes to us from the British: the buttondown collar, chukka boots, the cummerbund, the polo shirt, and of course the polo coat.
The camel hair coat has changed its style a bit over the years, yet remains a classic of the genre. Brooks Brothers has been stocking them forever, or at least since the early years of the 20th century, and Ralph Lauren’s version (see example above) with flapped chest pocket is an authentic copy [note to CC: I know this sounds contradictory, but leave it in anyway] of one worn by the Duke of Windsor himself.
It looks to be with us for many years to come, the gods and camels willing. (Continue)
The annual Harvard-Yale football game — known to students and alumni simply as The Game — has been played since 1875 and alternates each year between Harvard Stadium and the Yale Bowl. The Game is famous for its always-waning-but-never-quite-dead tradition of genteel tailgating, nowadays conducted alongside college parties more squarely within the “Animal House” tradition.
What we still call Ivy League clothing is rarely seen on the campuses of these premier Ivy League schools. Today’s Harvard and Yale students attend The Game in nondescript jeans, sweatshirts and fleece — or shorts and t-shirts if they want to signal that dressing for the weather is beneath them. But in the heyday of the Ivy League Look, as this 1962 Sports Illustrated article explains, The Game enabled Cambridge and New Haven clothiers to scout out sartorial trends and keep track of their rivals:
Whenever it is played at Harvard, as it was November 24 last, representatives of the New Haven tailoring establishments—J. Press, Fenn-Feinstein, Chipp, Arthur Rosenberg, et al.—entrain for Cambridge to render biennial obeisance and to see what the young gentlemen are wearing. The tailors themselves wear velour Alpine hats, double-breasted, tweed topcoats and blue oxford shirts to offset their sallow complexions. By custom they do not speak to one another, and, upon arrival, each goes his separate way. Following tradition, Paul Press descends into the basement of J. Press, where he stands his Cambridge branch employees to a buffet luncheon of cream soda and hot pastrami imported from New Haven.
This year’s Game will be played on November 21 at Yale and marks a return for Mory’s, the New Haven dining club that appeared headed for oblivion a few years ago. The Yale Herald reports that Mory’s will have a tent at The Game, serving brunch, drinks, nostalgia, and hope for the future.
Pictured are photos of The 1960 Game from the LIFE archives. — TALIESIN
Taliesin, who works in the federal government, holds a master’s degree from Harvard, where he was always amazed at how badly his fellow students dressed, though how impressive they were in most other respects. He has never been to New Haven. (Continue)
When it comes to starting fashion trends, there’s Princeton and then there’s every other school. From the three-button suit to its namesake haircut, Princeton has popularized such menswear staples as Norfolk jackets, raccoon coats, tweed sport coats, rep ties, spectator shoes, khaki pants and Shetland sweaters.
Princeton’s sartorial influence has been dulled by time, but for much of the 20th century it was well acknowledged by both a watchful fashion industry and rival schools.
LIFE magazine’s 1938 article, “Princeton Boys Dress in a Uniform,” confirms that “tailors and haberdashers watch Princeton students closely,” while students at Harvard and Yale call Princetonians “the prototype of Hollywood’s conception of how the well-dressed college boy should look.”
So how did Princeton men become such recognized style leaders?
Like most clotheshorses, they had money and a penchant for both quality and quantity. As one student wrote in a 1931 campus publication, “As every Princeton father knows, his son’s clothes are expensive.” Yearbooks, newspapers and athletic programs were filled with advertisements for Brooks Brothers and Franks Brothers, a top-tier shoe company.
Not only did Princeton men spend big bucks on their own apparel, but their stamp of approval helped manufacturers court other collegiates. The school’s name attached to a garment conferred integrity. EE Taylor Corporation’s “Princetonian” shoe was advertised as direct “from the campus of the country’s collegiate fashion center,” and was one of the company’s best selling models of 1934.
Secondly, Princetonians lived in a self-regulated environment with a well defined social pecking order. Sure, Harvard and Yale had their share of insularity and rich white kids, but they also pioneered financial aid and scholarships, which fostered a more diverse student body than Princeton. In rural New Jersey with little meddling from administrators, Princeton men created a homogenous campus culture that prioritized fitting in.
In “This Side of Paradise,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, describing his protagonist’s first day at Princeton, wrote, “Amory felt unnecessarily stiff and awkward among these white-flannelled, bare-headed youths who must be juniors and seniors, judging by the savoir-faire with which they strolled,” and he “wondered vaguely if there was something the matter with his clothes.”
For the first half of the century, Princeton freshmen and sophomores were banned by tradition from wearing particular garments, such as white flannel pants or striped ties. One had to earn the right to dress like a Princeton man.
While an ample bank account and the need to dress the part allowed Princeton students to assemble a well honed wardrobe, the leisure-based lifestyle of their campus inspired the actual trends. Athletics dominated Priceton’s student culture. Sportswear was worn around the clock. Earlier trends, such as tweed golfing suits or flannel blazers, had an air of formality. Those that came later in the century couldn’t have been more casual, and included sweatshirts, sneakers and t-shirts. Despite such differences, the collective contribution of Princeton students to the modern American wardrobe is undeniable. Whether you’re wearing khakis and a sport coat or jeans and a cardigan, chances are your clothes were first popularized at Princeton. — DEIRDRE CLEMENTE
Deirdre Clemente is a cultural historian who was denied admission to Princeton three times. She is a former fashion writer and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon, where her dissertation dissects the influence of college students on the casualization of the American wardrobe in the first half of the 20th century. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Social History, The New England Quarterly, and Labor Studies Journal.
What was it like for a public-school kid from nowhere to go to an Ivy League school during the heyday?
Sure, you got to wear cool clothes (once you figured out what they were), but even that was fraught with anxiety.
At least it was for Timothy Thompson, whose first semester at Yale was full of loneliness, awkwardness, and rigorous academics requiring 18-hour days just to keep from flunking out.
Tim previously appeared in our post “Blue Man Group.” Now here’s his story: a lengthy LIFE magazine feature on what happens when a “rough country boy” from Oregon gets into Yale, only to endure a “painful struggle trying to fit in.”
In addition to brain-twisting homework and the challenge of making friends, Tim also had to learn strange new words like “avant-garde,” buy new clothes in order to “keep up with his classmates,” sit through French courses conducted in French, and uphold his clean-living Baptist values in the wake of the Sexual Revolution.
But Tim had pluck: “I want to be myself,” he told the magazine. “I don’t want to be classified as a sophisticate, a playboy, a screwball, or anything.”
But didn’t LIFE do him a disservice by profiling him in a high-circulating periodical? Talk about piling on the pressure: Now it wasn’t just his parents and campus advisor waiting to see his math grade, but the entire United States of America.
Did Tim eventually graduate, rising from Pacific Northwest obscurity to old-boy network? And where is he now?
Attempts to find an answer via Google came up empty. I’ve a bottle of bay rum for the reader who can find the answers. — CC