Did you know that nine out of 10 men prefer chemically treated non-iron shirts that feel funny and look artificially perfect to pure unadulterated cotton? And I’m not talking about the general population, but specifically shoppers at that bastion of traditionalism, Brooks Brothers.
Some years ago Ralph Gardner had an interesting write-up in the Wall Street Journal on the classic Brooks Brothers oxford, which he calls “the bedrock of our republic.”
After having been raised on polyester in what one assumes were the 1970s, Mr. Gardner discovered Brooks Brothers’ classic oxfords and has been a devoted fan ever since. Here he is on shopping for supplies at 346 Madison Avenue:
… stepping through its brushed-steel double doors, like those of a bank vault, you felt as if you were crossing from the chaos and flimsy values of the outside world into something immutable, almost a private club, its members united not by religion or politics or a passion for stamps or sports, but by clothing and men’s accessories that flattered the wearer as much for their ethical values as for their quality and cut.
Gardner goes on to find comfort in the idea of kinship shared with Brooks men of the past, who all wore the same shirt:
I have no idea whether there was any connection between Brooks Brothers and writers and editors such as Max Perkins, Harold Ross, Fitzgerald and Cheever. But it always felt as if their ghosts were roaming the aisles alongside you, debating with themselves whether they should stick to white or whether they could pull off pink or pinstripes this season. The store served as connective cultural tissue between different generations of New Yorkers: What we all had in common was an eye for authenticity and an intellect capable of seeing through the fads and false gods of our fellow man.
But Gardner is disconcerted to learn that there is currently only one table at Brooks’ flagship devoted to the classic oxford cloth buttondown. Every other table is piled with non-iron shirts. When he telephones a Brooks merchandiser for an explanation, he’s told that non-iron shirts account for 90 percent of the store’s shirt sales:
“Today, that’s now the Brooks Brothers shirt.”
It shows you how much things have changed since the ’80s. Preppy may be more mainstream than ever, a fashion commodity that can be found, however watered-down, at shopping malls across the country. What’s been lost, of course, is the ethos behind the clothes, what Gardner calls the “ethical values.” And these go as much into how clothes are worn as how they’re made.
If you weren’t born to it, then Old Money values when it comes to men’s shirts are something you learn along the way. There’s that anecdote about Princeton students back in the day, the ones who got in on merit but took their style cues from the legacies, and who were forced to sandpaper the collars on their buttondowns to make them look broken in. Just last week my own father, a classic neatfreak, told me the collars on the Brooks shirts I’d sent him recently were already starting to fray from rubbing against his neck stubble. He wondered if they should be replaced. I reminded him that his hair was thin and gray and his face sun-beaten and wrinkled, and that maybe his shirt should also look like it’s had a little life experience and not come straight from a plastic wrapper.
That a buttondown oxford should have a little character, some fraying around the edges, some puckering on the placket, and the wrinkles that come from rolling up your sleeves and dealing with the business of life, is something you have to learn to appreciate, like the dull but noble patina on a piece of antique wood compared to the showroom-floor shine of new furniture.
Brooks Brothers is a much bigger company than it was in the ’80s, and its customer base much broaderand largely unaware, one suspects, of the old WASPy values for things like natural, lived-in clothes. The desire to look spic-and-span emanates from what Paul Fussell calls a very middle-class “anxiety over neatness.”
Non-iron shirts have their adherents, but personally I can’t stand them. And when time and convenience are valued above all else, even above the rich character of well aged oxford cloth, then I’m sorry but I think you’ve got your values backwards.
With 90 percent of its shirt sales in the non-iron category, Brooks is clearly giving its customer what he wants. But there’s something more, which Gardner hints at:
… what made Brooks Brothers great wasn’t that it catered to the public’s taste; it created taste.
One senses that the hero of Mary McCarthy’s story “The Man In The Brooks Brothers Shirt” feels he’s wearing something special from the unquestioned arbiters of good taste. He certainly wasn’t wearing a non-iron shirt, but then again they hadn’t been invented yet. If they had, who knows which side of the 90/10 divide he’d be on. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD