The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt

For Ivy Style’s 300th post, London-based contributor Rebecca C. Tuite examines the most important piece of literature about The Ivy League Look’s most important brand.

There is little doubt that Mary Mccarthy’s short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” is now probably more famous for its punchy title — a dream for the Brooks Brother’s marketing team —  than it is for the actual story. But it remains a classic part of the mystique of the Brooks Brothers Look, and indeed, the Brooks Brothers Man.

Taken from Mary McCarthy’s 1942 novel “The Company She Keeps,” which is less a straight narrative and more a collection of six short stories, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” forms the third chapter in the story of Margaret Sargent, a young woman trying to redefine her life following a Reno divorce. “Floundering in a world of casual affairs and squalid intimacies,” Sargent is self-destructive, reinventing herself as a bohemian and rebelling against society, all of which finds a perfect counterpoint in Mr. Breen: a Cleveland-based executive at a steel company and the “hearty stranger in the green shirt” she meets on a Pullman car heading west to Sacramento.

The story opens with the first description of the man, who at this point remains nameless:

The new man who came into the club car was coatless. He was dressed in grey trousers and a green shirt of expensive material that had what seemed to be the figure “2” embroidered in darker green on the sleeve. His tie matched the green of the monogram, and his face, which emerged rather sharply from this tasteful symphony in cool colours, was bluish pink.

Less than impressed, Sargent sees him “like something in a seed catalogue,” and although feeling “full of contempt for the man, for his coatlessness, for his colour scheme, for his susceptibility, for his presumption,” she still allows herself, firstly, to enter into conversation with him, and secondly, to spend the night with him (subsequently enduring the following morning). All of this is peppered with Sargent’s own disgust for the promiscuity her aunt has always warned her about — “I don’t know why you make yourself so cheap,” and “It doesn’t pay to let men think you’re easy.”

But what makes the conversation really take flight between the pair, is the Brooks Brothers shirt:

When she asked him what the emblem on his shirt stood for, unexpectedly the door flew open. “It was a little officers’ club we had in the war,” he said. “The four deuces, we called ourselves.” He paused, and then went on irrelevantly, “I get these shirts at Brooks Brothers. They’ll put the emblem on free if you order the shirts custom-made. I always order a dozen at a time. I get everything at Brooks Brothers except ties and shoes. Leonie [his wife] thinks it’s stodgy of me.”

Breen’s wife, of course, is a Vassar Girl, and Sargent, despite herself, is impressed with this additional status symbol. To Margaret Sargent, the train compartment, the mention of Vassar, the drinks, the food, all “gave her that sense of ritualistic ‘rightness’ that the Best People are supposed to bask in.”

The shirt certainly emphasizes how the Brooks brand and look maintain what G. Bruce Boyer has described as “more than a whiff of the right stuff.” Her desire to be unique and unimpressed by America’s consumer culture lapses, and she likes that “the highballs, gold in the glasses, tasted as her own never did, the way they looked in the White Rock advertisements.”

But the next morning the ultimate shame comes as Mr. Breen demands she take a bath. Despite her protests, “The man merely pressed the bell, and when the porter announced that the bath was ready, shoved her out into the corridor in his Brooks Brothers dressing-gown with a cake of English toilet soap.”

By now, the Brooks Brothers shirt and the dressing gown take on a kind of political significance:

She lay in the bath a long time, gathering her forces. In the tepid water, she felt for the first time a genuine socialist ardour. For the first time in her life she truly hated luxury, hated Brooks Brothers and Bergdorf Goodman and Chanel and furs and good food. All the pretty things she had seen in shops and coveted appeared to her suddenly gross, superfatted, fleshly, even, strangely, unclean.

Instead of being immaculately attired in Brooks Brothers like Mr. Breen, who has the “striking effect of having been put together by a good tailor,” Sargent’s own trousers are held together with a safety pin, “a sign of moral fastidiousness” that once again reinstates her as immune to the allure of expensive fashions.  Of course, Sargent’s bohemianism, and her potential to become just another “one of those bohemian horrors with oily hair and long earrings,” suggests that she is buying into a character and a performance just as much as Mr. Breen. But The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’s disbelief, and disappointment, at her “way of life” is perhaps what hurts Sargent the most:

“But you fell in love with me because I am Bohemian…”
“No… It’s because underneath all that you’re just a sweet girl.”

Six years after the story was published the title was adapted in Brooks Brothers’ advertising to promote the whole suit as the definitive status symbol for the Brooks Man. An advertisement in the New York Times in 1948 reads, “When people say ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers’ Suit,’ they do more than point out a man — they identify him.”

In 1990 “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” was adapted for television, with Beau Bridges playing Mr. Breen and Elizabeth McGovern as Margaret Sargent (Netflix has a DVD version as part of a collection of three short films under the title “Women and Men: Stories of Seduction“). However, the film loses much of the conflict between the Brooks Man and the bohemian that makes McCarthy’s story so compelling. — REBECCA C. TUITE

19 Comments on "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt"

  1. I went into Brooks Brothers Toronto to stock up on the shirts during the Christmas Sale. The selection was pretty dismal, and when I asked, the clerk actually told me that the OCBD wasn’t really their “thing”, and that they were most famous for their non-iron dress shirts. I was too confused to even try and refute the point.

    I’d order them online, but I don’t even know what the point is anymore, if their clerks are going to be like that about it.

  2. Kind of odd how the first comment has nothing to do with the article. I guess people just need a place to vent.

    Happy to provide it.

  3. Sorry about that. Rather wrecked about the whole thing, and if there was any place I figured the point would be understood, this would be it.

    Is the whole boho thing that incompatible with the Brooks Brothers image? I sort of took Miles Davis as being able to reconcile some of the best aspects of both.

    Just the same, I love that certain pieces of clothing can act as a synecdoche in that way. Like the ‘Man in the Grey Flannel Suit’.

  4. But this story is 12 years before Miles went “preppy.”

  5. Bill Stephenson | January 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm |

    Also, way off of the subject of the article which is excellent, IMO. The use of a shirt as a bridge to explore contrasting life styles and values.

    However, it is easy to understand the fact that the article set off the feeling of angst that Xiao has, as a result of seeking the “perfect” OCBD, that used to be available by the armload at BB. As he was told, what Ivy purists seek, just isn’t their thing any more. Doesn’t lessen our desire for the real thing. The “non iron” offering just won’t do if you are paying attention, and are unwilling to compromise.

    Xiao, it would be well worth a click on the Mercer Brothers icon. My only connection is that of a long time customer, who was delighted to find what most Ivy purists have been seeking in vain, for years.

  6. It seems odd that Brooks Brothers would have created an advertising slogan around this story. I’ve never read it in it’s entirety, but the sumarry here doesn’t exactly portray the wearer of their product in the most positive light.

  7. I mean, he’s from Cleveland for God’s sakes ; )

  8. Another great piece of literature relating to Brooks Brothers is David Loovis’ “Try for Elegance”. Mr. Loovis was a Brooks Brothers salesman, as is the protagonist. The descriptions of the store and its offerings are very detailed. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

  9. Mary McCarthy is a fascinating personality, maybe because she is so hard to pin down as definitely one thing or another. Raised in Seattle, but educated at Vassar and lived in the East. Her background is at once 1920s “establishment” (sent to private school, raised by her lawyer grandfather who went to Cornell, belonged to the Rainier Club, and was listed in the Social Blue Book of Seattle) and ethnically diverse, with Irish and Jewish ancestry. Grew up in a Republican family, but was an ardent leftist. Maybe that’s why Margaret Sargent seems pulled in two directions in the short story — at the same time attracted to and repelled by the Man in the Brooks Brothers shirt, torn between a bohemian lifestyle and a life of luxury and propriety.

  10. “An advertisement in the New York Times in 1948 reads, “When people say ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers’ Suit,’ they do more than point out a man — they identify him.”

    Now who’s going to do us the favor of unearthing that ad?

  11. Pardon my satorial ignorance but was does OCBD mean considerfing I have half a dozen Brooks Brothers shirts (all require ironing).

  12. Roy R. Platt | January 26, 2011 at 10:26 am |

    The shirt that the actor is wearing appears to be neither green nor does the monogram seem to be either like the number “2” or on the cuff of the shirt.

    Also, it would have been the Ladies Maid rather than the Pullman Porter who helped lady passengers who were going for a bath.

  13. The maid did run the bath, however, it is the porter in the story who returns to announce that the bath is ready in the ladies’ lounge.

    There is a monogram on the cuff in the film, but this image had a better view of the character and the shirt combined, so that is most likely why it was chosen. The monogram on the cuff in the film seems to be a number two in a kind of emblematic outline. The personalised initials shown on the shirt here are not mentioned in the story, but feature on the shirt in the film version courtesy of the costume department! Actually, I think this is a good addition to his costume on screen: it compounds the idea that he enjoys the exclusivity of personalised, tailored attire from BB.

  14. Bill Stephenson | January 26, 2011 at 12:41 pm |

    Hey Martin, sorry about the shorthand. OCBD = oxford cloth button down.

  15. Vern Trotter | January 27, 2011 at 3:10 pm |

    The man in the BB shirt was modeled after McCarthy’s husband, esteemed critic and author, Edmund Wilson, close friend and classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton. Adult photos show him in BB 3 piece suits and OCBD shirts with the collar roll as it used to be.

  16. Is the novel title ‘The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit’ a reference to MacCarthy’s story?

  17. More details about that famous 1948 BB ad:

    30 August 1948, New York Times, pg. 3

    Somebody must have access to the NYT archive.

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