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

As a follow-up to our previous post on the Brooks Brothers women’s collection moving back into the Madison Avenue flagship, we take a look at a 1954 LIFE Magazine article and newly discovered LIFE archive photos depicting the trend of women buying boys and mens clothing at Brooks. The photos also reveal what the store looked like in 1954, when clothing was predominantly laid flat on tables.

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

Rebecca C. Tuite is a writer and fashion historian based in London currently pursuing graduate studies at University of the Arts. Her research is focused on collegiate American fashion, including the construction of the Vassar Girl style as a key archetype of American fashion and womanhood in 1950s American media. She completed her undergraduate studies at both the University of Exeter and Vassar College.

Editor’s note: As a commercial website, had its wrists slapped by the legal department of Time Inc. for posting LIFE archives photos. We hope the screenshot above staves off any further admonishment.

3 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.

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