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