Throughout the 20th century the Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth buttondown was a classic of American menswear, so iconic it was immortalized in a piece of literature, namely Mary McCarthy’s short story “The Man In The Brooks Brothers Shirt.” Like all of Brooks’ clothing throughout those decades, the shirt offered superb taste and good quality at a fair price. But the new-old oxford the company unveiled to the media today — the kind the character in the story would have worn — brings up all sorts of strange contradictions that have myself and colleagues scratching our heads more than ever over Brooks and its legacy.
Late this afternoon Brooks Brothers confirmed to Ivy Style that this new oxford is now THE oxford, and that the previous one, most recently priced at $95, has been phased out. This means that the iconic shirt the company introduced in 1896, and which epitomized good quality at a fair price, will now set you back a hefty $140.
Let’s examine more closely the strange trajectory of this signature item, one of the half-dozen or so, along with tweed sack jackets, khakis and flannels, Weejuns, and knit and rep ties, that came to define the Ivy League Look.
The Brooks oxford rose to its iconic status manufactured a very specific way resulting in a very specific appearance. Most notably, the collar was unlined and unfused, creating a signature roll when worn. At some point in the late ’80s Brooks Brothers suddenly changed the collar to one that was lined and fused, eliminating the distinctive shape.
Diehard customers felt, shall we say, con-fused by this.
Over the past 25 years or so, without any kind of direct explanation, Brooks Brothers gradually accustomed its customers to the new lined and fused oxford, which it still called the Original Polo. This was the iconic Brooks Brothers oxford as a new generation came to know it. But now the company has done a 180-degree about-face, eliminated the lined and fused version it sold for so long, and will begin the process of re-accustomizing its customers to an unlined and unfused version. This is now the iconic Brooks Brothers oxford, not the one that was in stores just a short time ago.
My guess is that, from the point of view of the company’s bottom line, there were so few customers for the classic must-iron oxford that Brooks figured it might as well just give the purists what they never stopped clamoring about — and it surely noticed the small but devoted market for non-fused oxfords, which Bruce Boyer pointed out — and that it had no need to worry about making new converts or having to explain to whatever lined-and-fused devotees might be out there just what exactly happened to the shirt they were used to.
But from our point of view, it is yet another development in the tremendous change of this formerly small, distinguished American institution and paragon of upper-middle-class taste into a billion-dollar global trend-chasing apparel business. Which is why the new shirt feels like yet another thing for us to criticize. The primary reason this return to the original stings rather than soothes is the $45 jump in price. Does it really cost $45 more in the manufacturing plant to remove the collar and cuff lining, remove the pocket, and upgrade the buttons? It’s the same fabric made in the same place.
This is why Brooks Brothers devotees feel like jilted lovers. The company messed with a classic years ago, kept it messed up through two ownership changes, then finally decided to fix it, the cost of which is now being passed on in the form of a surcharge. Brooks Brothers is asking you to pay a premium for its own mistake.
Or, to put it metaphorically, to just roll with it. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD