From Wall Street To Main Street: That Brooks Brothers Look, 1954

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Recently on Ivy Style’s Facebook page a reader posted an article by Julien Dedman entitled “That Brooks Brothers Look.” A quick investigation revealed that the article comes from the February, 1954 issue of Playboy, and that Dedman had graduated from Yale in 1948.

I’ve argued several times for the year 1967 as an end of the heyday, and I think we may now have a strong candidate for the beginning. Nineteen-fifty-four is the same year LIFE Magazine published its “Ivy Look Heads Across US” story. The Ivy League Look must have been new enough to warrant these mass media stories, but not popular enough to feel like old news.

The article includes the above illustration from Shepherd Mead’s book “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” which Playboy had modified to show that all the items should be sourced at Brooks Brothers. Scans of the full article, which is a bit difficult to read, can be seen on our Facebook page (scroll down to the entry from July 13).

Dedman opens his essay by noting the rising popularity of the Brooks look:

It seems that “The Brooks Brothers Look” has broken out of the cracked-leather-and-brass-tacked confines of the Yale, Harvard and Princeton clubs and is spreading like the oak blight to yonder hinterlands, lending its polished luster to — horrors — the lesser breeds.

It’s a look, he says, that has been a part of select East Coast communities for generations:

Without it, for instance, you are branded a Bolshevik in most eastern universities, an untouchable in Boston and New York societies, a plain damned fool in the financial salons of Wall Street.

With tongue no doubt planted in cheek, Dedman says that Brooks is more than a look, it’s a veritable religion. Or at least a religious commandment, as in “Thou shalt not wear anything else”:

It is a way of life. You are initiated into its ancient and honorable cult when you enter Hotchkiss, Andover, Exeter, Groton, or any other of the fashionable eastern prep schools.

Though I’ve argued that much of the Ivy League Look comes down to styling as much as ingredients, and that the campus was the primary influence on the styling, Dedman gives credit for the look directly to Brooks, calling everyone else imitators:

Your father takes you  (as his father did before him) to Brooks Brothers, or to one of its multifarious imitators, and you are transformed — presto chango — into a “man who belongs.” You emerge wearing a suit with no shoulder padding, a straight-hanging (not fitted through the waist, please) three-button coat with narrow, notched lapels, pleatless trousers narrowed through the knees to a neat eighteen-inch cuff. The piece de resistance consists of a selection of white, buttondown collar, Oxford-weave shirts embellished by several silk repp English regimental striped ties.

While the clothes can be bought off the shelf, proper footwear requires an investment of time:

Shoes pose a problem. The Brooks Brothers Look demands old shoes of very good leather (preferably slightly cracked) and polished to a high sheen. New shoes are déclassé. The answer to this is to buy a new pair of shoes and wear them furtively until they are properly aged, or else buy them at a second-hand store.

Also as explored in my “rise and fall” essay, the two worlds most associated with this look are the worlds of finance and the campus. After previously invoking “the financial salons of Wall Street,” Dedman again returns to the world of prep schoolers:

Thusly clad you can enter any prep school you please and rest assured that nobody will find you different from anyone else.

Mixed among encomium for Brooks and its singular contribution to American culture is this passage, which today reads as irony:

Brooks Brothers… sits dauntless and unperturbed… a citadel of conservatism, unmoved by the vagaries and vicissitudes of male fashion. In this fickle world of change, one can always count on Brooks Brothers to remain faithful to its style. It will go on ad infinitum clinging jealously, tenaciously, to its tried-and-true measurements…

After the lengthy discussion of Brooks and its original customer base, Dedman finally addresses the look’s rising popularity:

Nightclub comedians, TV crooners [and] bandleaders have dipped into the Ivy League Pandora’s Box of fashion and emerged with crew cuts, horn-rimmed glasses, and that BB Look. It used to be you could tell a Yale, Harvard, or Princeton grad four blocks down Madison Avenue. Now you aren’t sure. It could be the alto saxophonist of Guy Lombardo’s band.

After that, there’s nothing left but decry the barbarians at the gate. “How the hell can I preserver the aura of distinction that shrouds any wearer of a BB suit,” Dedman writes, “when every Tom, Dick and Harry in America is wearing a shabby imitation?”

I assume Julien Dedman is no longer with us, but I hope he lived long enough to see what the barbarians at the gate looked like when the Ivy popularity he so gently mocks had ended. I’d enjoy reading his take on that.

In 1958, however, he did turn his wit to his alma mater:

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I’ll try and track down a copy, which is surely full of sartorial observations. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

26 Comments on "From Wall Street To Main Street: That Brooks Brothers Look, 1954"

  1. Christian, a very enjoyable post!

  2. James Redhouse | July 24, 2013 at 11:33 pm |

    The pen and pencil set in the chest pocket, as well as the crew cut, were signs of IBM employees of the time.

  3. “Brooks Brothers… sits dauntless and unperturbed… a citadel of conservatism, unmoved by the vagaries and vicissitudes of male fashion. In this fickle world of change, one can always count on Brooks Brothers to remain faithful to its style. It will go on ad infinitum clinging jealously, tenaciously, to its tried-and-true measurements…”

    How we all wish this were true.

  4. Actually, with the purchase of Southwick, the best natural shoulder clothing maker in the USA, classic Brooks style perseveres. The Warwick, the Douglas, the Woodbridge, the Cambridge, and so on–several sack jacket models that really are genuine throwbacks. The natural shoulder prevails. Not ironically because of Brooks.

  5. The retail floor stuff–well, another story. But, hey, they saved Southwick. So, all can be forgiven.

  6. S.E. , You are right. I should not be so short sighted. I applaud them for the Southwick move. Now they need to give Southwick rule of their retail floor. Another Cambridge jacket is high on my list.

  7. NaturalShoulder | July 25, 2013 at 11:37 pm |

    S.E. can you provide details on the Woodbridge. I don’t see it on the Southwick site.

  8. A.E.W. Mason | July 26, 2013 at 8:39 am |

    At Southwick.com the jackets, at least as presented on the “Models” page, are awful. They have Pee Wee Herman written all over them. They don’t drape the wearer but rather cling to him. Yes, I know, this is the new cut; this is what young men think is “in.” So, when ordering Southwick from O’Connell’s today, if one wants a traditional fit, does a fellow who is usually a “short” order a “regular,” and in one size larger than his usual size? Also, a word of caution when looking at the ties adorning the suits presented on Southwick’s “Home” page: wear sunglasses. Might these ties have been provided by BB?

    While I too very much applaud BB for saving Southwick, someone please tell me I’m wrong and that I’m looking at the wrong page or that there is another website or that Southwick doesn’t post the truly fine garments. Really, I hope I have missed something.

    For an example of perfection, on the other hand, behold this old Ivy Style post:

    http://www.ivy-style.com/vintage-norman-hilton-advertisements.html#comments

  9. No need for panic.

    The pics are not a perfectly accurate representations of the jackets.

    I own several Cambridge model jackets. With MTM, length can be specified/adjusted. Ditto for point to point, shaping through the middle, and lots of other details. Including the length of the center hook vent and lapel width.

    I’ve had Cambridge models made using lightweight (10 oz.) Shetland tweed, tweaking this and that. The higher hook vent, higher gorge, and more rounded front of another Norman Hilton model (not Hampton) is what I had in mind. The Cambridge is softly tailored: a very light/thin canvas and no shoulder padding. And, equally important, no roping at the sleevehead. A nice, rounded off shoulder.

    And yet it still feels like a tailored jacket. Unlike the multitudes of so called ‘unconstructed’ jackets.

    Remember that the Hampton featured tracing/shaping. More so than the Heyday Brooks sack.

  10. AEW,

    Yes, you’ve missed something. O’Connell’s carries traditional cuts in their Southwick pieces. No need for a Short to order a Regular. Furthermore, the standard Southwick MTM cut in the Douglas model is a traditional cut rather than a hipster cut.

    In other words, your anxiety is quite unfounded.

  11. A.E.W. Mason | July 26, 2013 at 11:43 am |

    S.E, Biff,

    Whew! And thank you. I thought you two would be likely to correct me if I was wrong. In fact, O’Connell’s pictures don’t look anything like what we see at Southwick.com. I still have, and wear, something like 5 Southwick suits which I acquired at a shop in San Marino, Cal. back in the 1990s. These shops are long gone, but my suits still look great. Alas, soft, undarted tailoring has no constituency in Los Angeles, even in its most conservative old line suburbs.

  12. AEW,

    Be aware that Southwick has tinkered a bit with their models so the current models may vary from previous purchases. But it would be minor–nothing hipster–and you could always have them copy what you have when you buy MTM. IMO, Southwick’s MTM is a tremendous bargain.

  13. The Woodbridge was a slightly slimmer version of the Douglas.

    I wonder if this is the model J. Press used for a while–a few years ago.

  14. Christian | July 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm |

    I’ve put a new writer on the case to find out all that Southwick is up to. If you have specific questions, put them here and the reporter can run them by the company.

  15. Christian,

    See if we might learn anything concerning Southwick’s role in Brooks’ upcoming “Own Make” revival.

  16. A.E.W. Mason | July 26, 2013 at 3:14 pm |

    I was informed by a BB salesman recently that notwithstanding BB’s purchase of Southwick, the BB sack blazer is made by Samuelsohn. Anyone else know about this? Is it true? I suppose it might be due to a preexisting contract obligation. But, it’s all hearsay unless anyone here has first hand knowledge. CC?

  17. Christian | July 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm |

    I’ve just reached out to Brooks regarding Own Make, which they’d previously said they were holding off on releasing info about until fall gets closer. I’m trying to get an ETA and will ask about manufacturing when they’re ready to talk about it.

  18. Christian,

    Thanks. That approach makes sense.

    AEW,

    I’m not aware of anything that Southwick currently makes for the Brooks label. I’d be happy to be corrected.

    Supposedly, Southwick will be producing pieces for the Own Make line. Thus, my query above to Christian.

  19. A.E.W. Mason | July 26, 2013 at 6:48 pm |

    oxford cloth button down,

    By the way, I meant to compliment you on your blog post showing/analyzing all the different collar rolls which can be sported with an OCBD. If anyone hasn’t seen this post yet I highly recommend it; it covers the “collar-roll waterfront.”

  20. A.E.W. Mason,

    Thank you for your kind words.

  21. A.E.W. Mason | July 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm |

    My pleasure.

  22. Black knit ties. Just saw that. Not a fan.

  23. Interesting because the finance/Wall Street look today is certainly not Ivy/preppy. It consists of a more European style suit–very tailored, double-vented, with a slim uncuffed pant–plus an Hermes or Ferragamo printed silk tie worn with the tail out, so the label printed on the tail can be seen, accompanied by a spread collar shirt, heavily pomaded hair, and sleek shoes, typically black. It’s not a bad look, for sure, but Ivy it is not. I wonder when these two paths diverged?

  24. My guess is they diverged during the raider phase in the 80’s – when it was more important to one-up with spending. Italian suits and cars were a sure thing to demonstrate you were a spend-thrift.

  25. At least two valid sources inform me that there was ‘ivy’…and there was, for lack of a better phrase, IVY Luxe. Impeccable tailoring and excellent (usually custom for the maker) worsteds, woolens, and tweeds.

    Norman Hilton clothing–jackets and suits–were expensive. Certainly not within the realm of affordability for the typical undergrad circa ’65. Take a look at the NH ads. Older gentlemen. The target audience wasn’t the college sophomore on a tight budget.

    If Ivy was to forever be what it had become in many arenas–not great tailoring and sub par cloth–then it’s good it died. Think of it as a mercy death. Glue and poly-whatever blends. Ugh.

    Squeeze once pointed out that Ivy had everything to do with attention to quality tailoring and great (often bespoke) cloth. The real deal was never cheap. Adjusted for inflation, an off the rack NH suit would cost around $1,000 today.

    Dedman mentioned the “shabby imitations” the masses wore. He was more right than he could have known.

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