Golden Years: Cash-Sale Mayhem

Each year J. Press, Brooks Brothers and many other menswear stalwarts launch their big summer sale, reminding me of the mayhem that would followed “cash sale” postcard mailings during the heyday of the Ivy League Look.

In the area of Madison Avenue between 44th and 46th Streets — in front of Chipp, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, Abercrombie & Fitch and FR Tripler — the lines used to be around the block before the stores opened their doors the first days of the sale. And it was no different in New Haven at Fenn-Feinstein, Langrock, Arthur M. Rosenberg, Gentree, White’s, and Saks University Shop.

These were the days before credit cards, when the mark of a gentleman was how much he owed his tailor. Many of the stores were family owned, and in February factors and banks financed the season’s cash flow. Most of the business was conducted on a per-store charge account basis, payable 30 days after billing, or, in the case of custom tailoring, 30 days after final delivery. Filene’s Basement used to take some of the remainders at 25 percent of cost, before off-price discount stores existed.

I often felt like Franklin Pankborn, the store greeter of old Hollywood movies, being attacked by hordes of ruthless Ivy League bargain hunters. I spent the sales hours shuffling many dozens of suit buyers among harassed sales associates and fitters. This also entailed taking over from salesmen busy selling their next customers and matching the suits that had already been sold with the right combinations of dress shirts, ties, socks, etc. After 6 pm when the doors closed, the sales staff spent hours hanging up suits, which were strewn all over the place, and writing orders, while the fitters chalked and marked the alterations from the previous eight hours, never having once left the floor.

I remember sharing these battlefield experiences with Paul Ostrove, who performed similar obligations at Paul Stuart and often involved the same customers looking for the best deals from store to store.

These images are from the April 28, 1941 edition of the Yale Daily News. The reason for the early seasonal date of the sale is twofold. In 1938 my grandfather recognized the increasing probability of war in Europe and heavily invested in a robust inventory of English goods, fearing an imminent cessation of trade with Britain in the event of hostilities. Furthermore, the Draft Act was passed during the previous year and the purchasing power of many J. Press customers became greatly diminished as they deserted their tweed and seersucker for the khaki of military service.

In the end, cash-sale mayhem was an example of bargain hunting for those in the mail room who would one day wear custom clothing in the boardroom. It was corporate democracy in action during a time when upscale menswear was available not only to the John Lobb well-heeled, but to the common man wishing to adhere to a coherent wardrobe. — RICHARD PRESS

25 Comments on "Golden Years: Cash-Sale Mayhem"

  1. Oh, to have such choices again at Brooks Brothers. Or even to have Langrock’s or the old A & F back. Thanks kindly for the recall.

    BTW it’s Franklin Pangborn. I’m sure you handled the hordes more assuredly even as you laughed inwardly!

  2. Charleston | June 27, 2011 at 2:59 am |

    How the mighty have fallen!
    The disappearance of these retailers is symptomatic of the general decline in taste and standards in these United States.
    Saddening.

  3. These ads remind me of one of my Dad’s stories. When he was hired out of high school (1937) at Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, he visited downtown Pittsburgh to buy new clothes. I believe the store was called Palace Credit (I could be wrong.) Anyhow, after the salesman asked him if he had a job, he ushered him to their suit section. My Dad walked out of the store with a suit (2 pairs of pants), overcoat, trench coat, shirts, shoes, ties, felt hat, socks, belt, and scarf. Alterations were done on the spot, and everything on store credit. The bill came to just over a hundred dollars, paid $ 5 a week, no interest. I remember the suit, as a very young boy. It was a dark blue DB glen plaid with huge lapels.

    My Dad wore that suit, with others, until the mid Fifties, when the narrow lapels came in. I remember going to the local Richman Brothers with him. That day he bought a sharkskin suit almost like Cary Grant’s in North by Northwest. It cost $ 49.95. He wore that suit into the 1980’s. Cheers!

  4. Old School | June 27, 2011 at 11:01 am |

    @Wriggles:

    You remember correctly.

    Palace Credit Clothing was located at 623 Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh. Their slogan was: “Clothes that Please on Terms of Ease”

  5. There’s a long dramatization of what a semi-annual sale at Brooks was like for a sales clerk in the novel I wrote about here:

    http://www.ivy-style.com/bohemian-in-a-brooks-brothers-suit.html

  6. Michael Mattis | June 27, 2011 at 11:16 am |

    @Wriggles: What a great story. Thanks.

  7. rakcontur | June 27, 2011 at 5:12 pm |

    ….At one time, one dressed for occasions, thus making them occasion!
    …. now one dresses as if there are no occasions, however special they might have been.

  8. Old School | June 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm |

    @Wriggles

    More persistent Googling produced more information on The Palace.

    See the bottom of the first page of this article from The New England Review:

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/40242657

  9. @ Old School

    Thanks for the info.

    My own suit story is not as interesting as my Dad’s. I bought my first wool suit at Richman Brothers in Beaver Falls, PA in 1974. ( My mother believed boys and teenagers should not look like old men, so hence, my first suit at age 21.) It was a herringbone pattern single breast suit with moderate lapels, a dark blue green color. It must have been some sort of between-era suit, for the the lapels were not too big, and the pants had a slight flair leg and quarter top pockets. On clearance, for $ 44, with minor alterations.

    However, earlier in 1972, on discharge from the US Army, I decided I needed some new clothes. I really did not have much cash at the time. On the day after Christmas, I drove to the local mall and proceded to look for primarily a sport coat, and maybe some pants. Sears advertised sport coats at $ 9.88, so I thought this was a good place to start. The mens’ department was packed with shoppers. Men and wives would grab 3 or 4 sport jackets at a time. I saw one 46L and grabbed it. It fit relatively well. It was something called a warp knit. Loud multicolor stripes of black, pink, white, blue, etc. with flap pockets with wood buttons. In that era, that hideous jacket actually was fashionable, so I bought it with 2 pairs of quite conservative pants ($ 4 each). The bill that day came to 17.88. I wore that jacket to a job interview in 1973 with Babcock and Wilcox, a local steel company. Obviously, it must have been conservative enough for that year, for I got the job. A year later, I bought the above suit mentioned above. Many suit and jacket purchases followed through the years, but these will be remembered most. Cheers!

  10. I grew up in Southern California, but my father’s upbringing in the South along with my Mother’s rather wasp-ish family from Arizona (of all places) eventually led to the inheritance of good clothes. There are store tags in the three-button Harris tweed coats from Hanny’s in Phoenix and The Toggery Shop (there were 2 in town) in San Diego, which are sadly gone. The Ascot Shoppe in La Jolla remains, but much of the clothing has changed–for the worse.

    I’d love to be able to have more than Brooks Brothers with the occasional trip to Carroll, & Co. in Beverly Hills/Pasadena.

  11. I bought my first suits in 1980, to interview for jobs upon leaving school, from a small local department store that sold moderate to more upscale brands. There were one or two “campus” style shops in town (East Lansing, Michigan), but I didn’t go into them. I’ll bet they are long gone.

    When I started working at Price Waterhouse, we young guys saw that all the partners bought their clothing at Brooks Brothers. This was in Detroit, in the Penobscott Building, I believe. So a couple of us went over there on our lunch break. It was like entering a temple–all that dark wood paneling, and those older sales gents peering at us through half-rimmed reading glasses. It was almost scary–we found it intimidating. Maybe because we thought we couldn’t afford a thing they had.

    I’ve worked in a larger metro area in the midwest for the last 25 years, and in that time almost all the men’s stores have given up the ghost. I can think of two that exist; one of which, in either a fit of optimism or stupidity, opened a couple years ago. The business casual movement just killed the menswear retailers in my town.

    I love reading these posts.

    Don

  12. Evan Everhart | February 8, 2018 at 6:05 pm |

    I’m highly intrigued by the reference to the “Fuji Silk Button-down Collar Shirt” mentioned within the Fenn-Feinstein advertisement….Not sure what it could be, but it sounds….luxe. Anyone have any ideas? If so, I’d be interested in A.) seeing some representation of the item in question, and B.) if the item is suitable, procuring one, or a close approximation.

    For my part, that Fuji Silk button-down collar shirt is looking (in my minds eye), like a nubby version of a luxe royal oxford crossed with tussah silk with a thick but pseudo-open woven weave……The imagination does fly away with me!

  13. Evan Everhart | February 8, 2018 at 6:09 pm |

    I found the definition:

    Fuji Silk

    -Medium-weight fabric, woven from spun silk fibres
    -Has a soft lustre and a lavish feel, reminiscent of high quality suede
    -Has a fluid drape
    -First made in Japan

    BENEFITS

    -Durable
    -Resists wrinkles

    This sounds great, but I really love my idea; a weird cross between silk fresco cloth with tussah and royal oxford, but slightly…nubby and thick but open. It needs to be made, and then promptly made into BDS!

  14. Red Line Rat | April 25, 2020 at 9:00 pm |

    This reminds me of being a kid in the 1970s, and being hauled in to Filene’s Basement in Boston for the annual boys’ suit sale by my Mom. It was a mob scene. She knew clothes, she always got me something good, she made sure my father and I looked good. And my uncle, Boys Latin ‘54, USMA ‘58, bought all his jackets and suits at J. Press in Cambridge.

  15. john carlos | April 25, 2020 at 10:26 pm |

    Red Line Rat- I can identify although I’m guessing I”ve got some years on you. I was born in in 1949. I’m a devoted J Press customer even though I live in Texas.

  16. Funny, put any of these prices in an inflation calculator and they’re still a fraction of what these items cost now. That first line button down shirt in the Feinstein add selling for $1.85 would be $32 in today’s money! Not $140 less 25%.

  17. Yes Don, I remember when I was a lad in the 1980s and Brooks Brothers was still like that. Dark wood paneling, brass railings, thick carpeting underfoot, the delicious smell of wool, and (except during the twice-yearly sales) an almost cloistral hush. No piped-in music. A whole floor of suits and sport coats (in the old Brookspeak, “odd jackets”) stretching as far as the eye could see. There were some younger people selling furnishings on the main floor, but the floor with the tailored clothing was manned (not staffed, manned) by grey-haired salesmen who looked only a little younger than your grandfather and who you were sure had been fitting suits since the 1940s if not earlier.

  18. Heyday sales. Please–nowadays please-oh-please real sales. Everything is too expensive nowadays. I speak as a frugal WASP.

    Paul Fussell on WASPy rich:
    “They’re extremely modest people. They never show off. They’re more likely to have a small house than a large one.”

    Joke:

    Why aren’t there any cockroaches in the WASPs’ house?

    There’s nothing to eat.

    Today’s “sales” aren’t sales at all. Let’s get those OCBDs down to $50 or less.

    Charlottesville can comment if he’d like. Visit to Albemarle County last year — discovered gigantic (recently built) homes everywhere. The New $ has invaded, eh, C-Ville? Still more proof of the Death of the WASP. Reason for lament.

  19. Charlottesville | April 26, 2020 at 2:13 pm |

    S.E. – As you say, there are lots of big houses being built in this area, but the Rugby Rd. neighborhood and other spots near the University are more or less unchanged over the years, other than the prices, which are astronomical.

    However, there have always been some pretty grand houses in Albemarle County, such as Tiverton, Seven Oaks and Mirador, the childhood home of Nancy Langhorne, later Lady Astor. My wife and I live in an old farmhouse in the far western end of the county, but I do drive past the gates of these and some other fine old piles om my way to the office. These days the owners may have made their money from rock music rather than railroads and tobacco, but I am glad that the properties are still well maintained, and not subdivided into tract housing, as has happened to so many other farms, both here and elsewhere around the country.

  20. Charlottesville | April 26, 2020 at 2:59 pm |

    S.E. – On rereading my comment above, I think it may have come across as a bit dismissive of your observation. It was not intended that way. I agree that there is a lot of new money coming in, including a few big names from the worlds of music, publishing and Hollywood, plus a lot of tech money and some hedge fund folks. I just wanted to note that not all of these folks are building McMansions, and that some of them are doing quite nice things for the community. I think Coran Capshaw (manager of the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and other ventures), to mention one, has done a lot for the area, and he is not alone in putting large tracts of land under conservation easements. But I do wish there were fewer developments featuring nearly identical 7,000 sq. ft. houses on bare 1/2 acre lots with no trees. It reminds me of what has happened to the counties surrounding Washington, D.C. over the past 30 years or so.

    Also, I join all above who mourn the passing of the heyday (which I didn’t really get to experience, my start in the Ivy mode coming somewhat later. I wonder whether the world-wide lockdown, with so many businesses closing and people working from home, unshaven and pajama-ed, will spell a final end to even the withered form of formality that we had with us a few months ago. Or will we one day burst from our homes, so sick of slovenliness that we once again embrace the necktie and suit? I know where my heart lies, but I fear that is wishful thinking.

  21. Perhaps those who will spend more time working from home, will see stepping outside as more of an occasion and dress up when they leave the house. My thinking is they may see putting on a tie everyday as a chore, but once or twice a week might even be (gasp) enjoyable.

    I just bought 2 new leather belts and a $47 OCBD from BB, and a pair of charcoal slacks from JP. If you are cautiously optimistic as I am, now is a great time to stock up with all these sales going on. Assuming you are managing to generate cash flow, that is.

  22. “I wonder whether the world-wide lockdown, with so many businesses closing and people working from home, unshaven and pajama-ed, will spell a final end to even the withered form of formality that we had with us a few months ago. Or will we one day burst from our homes, so sick of slovenliness that we once again embrace the necktie and suit? I know where my heart lies, but I fear that is wishful thinking.”

    This

  23. Vern Trotter | May 2, 2020 at 8:45 am |

    No one held a sale like the old Filene’s Basement downtown on Winter Street. Hundreds outside in line in a snowstorm an hour before opening @ 7 AM.

  24. Vern Trotter | May 2, 2020 at 8:47 am |

    For hundreds of Brooks Brothers suits of course.

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