Each year J. Press, Brooks Brothers and many other menswear stalwarts launch their big summer sale, reminding me of the mayhem that would followed “cash sale” postcard mailings during the heyday of the Ivy League Look.
In the area of Madison Avenue between 44th and 46th Streets — in front of Chipp, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, Abercrombie & Fitch and FR Tripler — the lines used to be around the block before the stores opened their doors the first days of the sale. And it was no different in New Haven at Fenn-Feinstein, Langrock, Arthur M. Rosenberg, Gentree, White’s, and Saks University Shop.
These were the days before credit cards, when the mark of a gentleman was how much he owed his tailor. Many of the stores were family owned, and in February factors and banks financed the season’s cash flow. Most of the business was conducted on a per-store charge account basis, payable 30 days after billing, or, in the case of custom tailoring, 30 days after final delivery. Filene’s Basement used to take some of the remainders at 25 percent of cost, before off-price discount stores existed.
I often felt like Franklin Pankborn, the store greeter of old Hollywood movies, being attacked by hordes of ruthless Ivy League bargain hunters. I spent the sales hours shuffling many dozens of suit buyers among harassed sales associates and fitters. This also entailed taking over from salesmen busy selling their next customers and matching the suits that had already been sold with the right combinations of dress shirts, ties, socks, etc. After 6 pm when the doors closed, the sales staff spent hours hanging up suits, which were strewn all over the place, and writing orders, while the fitters chalked and marked the alterations from the previous eight hours, never having once left the floor.
I remember sharing these battlefield experiences with Paul Ostrove, who performed similar obligations at Paul Stuart and often involved the same customers looking for the best deals from store to store.
These images are from the April 28, 1941 edition of the Yale Daily News. The reason for the early seasonal date of the sale is twofold. In 1938 my grandfather recognized the increasing probability of war in Europe and heavily invested in a robust inventory of English goods, fearing an imminent cessation of trade with Britain in the event of hostilities. Furthermore, the Draft Act was passed during the previous year and the purchasing power of many J. Press customers became greatly diminished as they deserted their tweed and seersucker for the khaki of military service.
In the end, cash-sale mayhem was an example of bargain hunting for those in the mail room who would one day wear custom clothing in the boardroom. It was corporate democracy in action during a time when upscale menswear was available not only to the John Lobb well-heeled, but to the common man wishing to adhere to a coherent wardrobe. — RICHARD PRESS