Over the years we’ve chronicled many pop culture references made to Brooks Brothers throughout the 20th century. Starting some 70 years ago, the brand began to serve as shorthand not only for affluence and tradition, but for their flipside, the stodginess and narrow-mindedness of the Eastern Establishment. Examples range from Mary McCarthy’s 1942 short story “The Man In The Brooks Brothers Shirt” to the lyrics from 1950’s “Guys And Dolls,” with its reference to “the breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers type.”
Although the WASP stranglehold on power has long toppled, the grey-suited conformity of the Eisenhower years is just a page from history, and Brooks Brothers has become a billion-dollar global fashion brand, the company still serves as a symbol of door-shut inquality, especially to those from a certain American experience.
The latest to invoke the unique set of connotations that hangs over the Brooks Brothers brand as is Myrlie Evers-Williams, legendary civil rights activist and widow of Medger Evers, who was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday.
In an interview with Al Sharpton on PoliticsNation on the anniversary of the assassination, Evers-Williams said, “Jim Crow is alive, and it’s dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, my friend, instead of a white robe.” The reference comes at 4:30 in the video above, and the quote served MSNBC as headline material for its recap of the interview. The remark was also tweeted many times on Twitter, though it’s impossible to say how those who retweeted it interpreted the comment. Needless to say, as race in America always is, it’s a complex issue.
Evers-Williams’ remark, linking a clothing brand to institutionalized racism, may be hard for younger people to understand. It feels unfair Brooks Brothers, which, like America, has changed with the times. During the ’70s and ’80s, its catalogs featured illustrations of idealized gentlemen, all white. Today, the company regularly features black models in clothing and settings once considered exclusive to white America:
And just a few weeks ago Brooks Brothers ran a BrooksCool marketing campaign featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra:
President Obama, like so many presidents before him, wore Brooks Brothers to his inauguration:
One of those other presidents was Lincoln, and during the Civil War Brooks Brothers made uniforms for the Union.
The Civil War brings us to America’s original sin, racism, and what happened to Medgar Evers and his widow 50 years ago is cruel and tragic. But in matters of race, many of us have moved forward.
However, Jason Marshall, an African-American friend of mine and previous Ivy-Style.com contributor, tells me that moving forward is the challenge for the oppressor more than the oppressed, and this helps us understand the point of view behind Evers-Williams’ remark. It’s important to understand, he says, that no one could be closer to the source of intitutionalized racism than Myrlie Evers-Williams. “If it were a contemporary black celebrity under 50,” he says, “I can understand how it could be considered an unfair remark. But you can’t get any closer to the source of discrimination than Myrlie Evers-Williams. Not only is she black, she’s a woman. And for her generation, ‘the man in the Brooks Brothers suit’ was a genuine symbol of establishment oppression. In her experience, the brand was linked to institutionalized racism. Also, to analayze the comments of a widow on the anniversary of her husband’s death is already tricky.”
I asked Jason to share his thoughts on the remark in writing, and here’s his take:
Brooks Brothers is first and foremost an ideal, like any other successful fashion brand. This is especially true for those outside of the the menswear trade. Those of us within menswear would likely contest that J. Press is the stodgiest of brands.
We would also be missing the point.
When someone uses the term “Brooks Brothers” as an adjective (as in “the man in the Brooks Brothers suit”), it has nothing to do with the billion-dollar megabrand run by an Italian and strangely partial to overly large armholes. It has to do with the behavior of a demographic which companies like Brooks Brothers have been eager to dress and identify with. Said demographic at one time in America consisted of many devout racists who sole purpose in life seemed to be the obliteration of the African-American race.
Myrlie Evers-Williams was born into a time when this demographic was at something of froth over how to rid themselves of a people whom they saw as social lepers. Her late husband, Medgar Evers, sought to overturn the status quo, and in doing found himself at the center of hatred for him and his kind. Myrlie Evers was made a widow by said demographic.
A lesson to be learned by from all widows is that grief takes on many guises, and tend to last as long as the widow. A lesson learned from any one who has experienced racism on an institutional level is that those wounds run deep and scar badly. To suggest that a woman who epitomizes both circumstances should “move past it” is to fail to be sympathetic. Brooks Brothers can dress anyone in America today, but the behavior of those whom it dressed most frequently in the past will never be forgotten.
Throughout the 20th century, the Brooks Brothers brand was a double-edged sword of prestige and stigma, and the heyday of the Ivy League Look coincides with the civil rights movement. In other words, the style for which Brooks Brothers was the chief developer was at its zenith at precisely a time when black Americans were dying in the fight for social change. Moreover, in her interview, Evers-Williams points out that many young blacks today are unaware of what their elders went through during the civil rights movement.
The shadow and the light that shines on the Brooks Brothers brand — unique in American retail — mirrors the duality of America’s oppressive past and the desire of many of us to overcome it. — CC
Obama inauguration photo via New York Daily News.