Crashing the Boys Club: The Birth of the Brooks Brothers Woman

Although Brooks Brothers didn’t officially launch a full women’s department in its flagship store until 1976, young American women had been infiltrating the bastion of sartorial masculinity for quite some time. Since launching its pink shirt for women in 1949, Brooks had begrudgingly acknowledged the large number of females who wanted to wear the brand.

But within five years women were no longer satisfied with a tiny customer service desk located in a dark and secluded area of the store: They expected to roam freely through the store at will — including, presumably, the changing rooms. This growing inclination was reported in 1954 by LIFE Magazine, which suggested it was a case of Brooks giving an inch and girls taking a mile, like roaming the store in dressing gowns.

In “Male Designs on Women,” LIFE writes:

Although Brooks Brothers is generally identified with impeccably conservative male plumage, the staid New York store has recently become a shopping haunt for sophisticated women. This trend was started when the store opened a counter, placed discreetly at the rear of the main floor, where tweedy young women from college or the suburbs could buy the Brooks Brothers man’s shirt many of them had begun wearing.

Given this opening, more and more women have encroached upon the whole store, greedily discovering other items of male apparel that they can take over for themselves. Among their findings are a loose-fitting dressing gown… which is as stylish as it is comfortable, a boy’s topcoat which stops fashionably short and even a man’s boiled shirt which has gone soft for a woman…

A wonderful selection of images was shot for the article, capturing a young woman trying on polo coats, sweaters and buttondown shirts on the sales floor. The days of the Brooks woman being forced to surreptitiously buy her favorite items were over: She was going to try things on and shop the Brooks experience just like any man. Cue some anxious, curious, confused, and — let’s face it — pleasantly surprised looks from fellow male shoppers who encountered this comely new Brooks consumer. — REBECCA C. TUITE

8 Comments on "Crashing the Boys Club: The Birth of the Brooks Brothers Woman"

  1. Partial Preppy | November 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm |

    Back in the day, I used to buy shirts from the Brooks Brothers Boys department. Then BB stopped making them in 100% cotton.

    In any event, I never felt that BB clothes suited my short and somewhat curvy figure. To me, the line works best for tall, thin, somewhat androgynous women who are very pretty — that’s needed to overcome the asexual aura of a lot of the clothes.

    If I want a preppy style, the women’s line of J. Crew is preferable.

  2. Vern Trotter | November 4, 2010 at 7:45 am |

    In the late 50’s all they sold for women was the OCBD shirt and a very nice cardigan style sweater with a ribbon down the front.

  3. Thanks! This brings back memories of shopping the boys department when I was a skinny kid, shopping with Dad.

  4. “women’s department.” Ugh. None of the old (and great) men’s stores I’m aware of had such a thing. Barf.

  5. The Andover Shop has finally launched their new website:
    https://theandovershop.com/

  6. Charlottesville | December 14, 2019 at 6:03 pm |

    Ben – You are quite right about the broad range of BB merchandise in years past, including pipe tobacco, glassware and luggage. I have quite a nice English-made leather briefcase I bought in the 80s, now mostly gathering dust.

  7. Oddly, my 75-year old mother and I were discussing light blue OCBD shirts via telephone a couple of weeks ago, and she mentioned that she has been a fan of (wearing) the men’s BB variety since she was a teenager in the late 50s. I, of course, realized that she is a fan of this type of shirt, but had forgotten that she preferred Brooks Brothers. I’ve recently turned her on to Mercer though, so this could change.

    Compliments of the Season,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  8. MacMcConnell | December 17, 2019 at 3:25 pm |

    If you had Ivy dressing sisters in the 1950s, you would be aware of this brand. From wiki,

    “In the late 1940s, Raab realized that women’s fashions were changing. American women’s fashion was being increasingly dominated by teenage girls and adults with upwardly mobile tastes. In contrast, Morgan Raab produced low quality, unstylish blouses. In response, Raab started manufacturing man-tailored button down shirts at Morgan Raab. The clothing line was a great success.[1]

    In 1958, Raab and his brother Norman started The Villager, a clothing line that would define preppy Ivy League fashion for decades. The popularity of his clothing led the New York Times to label him the “dean of the prep look.[1] The Villager quickly grew to be one of the preeminent brands in American sportswear, only to diminish in popularity with the advent of the late 1960s counterculture and attendant styles in fashion. During this time, Raab also launched the Rooster Tie Company and became known for his unconventional use of unusual, non-traditional fabrics in ties.

    In 1974, Raab founded the J.G. Hook clothing line.[1] He had decided that it was ritme to revive the classic prep style of the 1950s. He also created a new necktie company, Tango, that again used unconventional materials for his ties.

    In remarks about his two careers, Raab stated, “A film’s director is a designer. Just as the film director works with a story; the designer, with a theme. The producer sits in on the editing and works with all of the elements of the finished project, as I do in both worlds.”

    In 1998, after growing J.G. Hook into a $100 million empire, Max sold the business.”

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