Established 1818: The Story of Brooks Brothers
By Richard Carreño
The Golden Fleece
(The following is an excerpt from a monograph).
When Brooks Brothers, in May, 1976, let it be known that its custom tailoring tailoring division would be phased out, The New York Times featured the announcement and reaction on Page 1. For The Times, Brooks' corporate decision was more than just a sign of the times.
Nearly 30 years earlier, when Brooks Brothers launched its buttoned-down polo shirt, in 1949, in pink -- the colour was considered so daring, so inventive, even so scandalous -- that Life turned over its cover to the shirt's début. It was a time when coloured shirts, especially the pink of the toff, were still associated with bohemian rebellion -- even with that love that had no name, homosexuality.
Fanfare is not new to Brooks Brothers. From earliest days, America's oldest continuing clothing store -- established 1818 -- has been in the public eye. The store is known to be old-fashioned, yet often at the cutting edge of sartorial innovation. This combination attracts public attention.
Brooks´ vicissitudes as a fledgling haberdasher in the teeming 19th century waterfront of lower Manhattan were chronicled in Valentine´s Manual, a prominent general circulation journal of the day.
More than 100 years later, in 1931, Brooks´s stature as a mature leader in American fashion was still of interest. At least, to the readers of Apparel Arts, who were regaled about the store´s remarkable history. The feature captured the fashion-minded style of the magazine´s editor, Arnold Gingrich, who went on to inject the same style and energy in his next editorial venture, Esquire.
Esquire writer George Frazier, just a few years later, refered to Brooks Brothers as the ''Brethren.'' Frazier continued to sing songs of praise to Brooks as columnist for the Boston Herald and, later, for The Boston Globe.
Among a contemprary panoply of confusting, sometimes contradictory, class values, Brooks Brothers has maintained a precarious status -- at least, perception -- as clothier to America´s WASP élite. Through the years, Brooks has outfiitted the powerful, the patrician, and the presidential. The shop´s ledgers include sales to Lincoln, Grant, Wilson, Roosevelt (Theodore and Franklin), Nixon, and Ford. Generations of Goulds, Astors, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers have also been among the loyal flock.
Like no other store, and few institutions, Brooks Brothers has served as a class and societal metaphor, embracing the business and artistic worlds. This has been the stuff of the store´s unparalleled mystique.
As is the case with many legends, Brooks is old, venerable, and prominent. It is also the only surviving founding father of American Fashion.
(This work was written in 1981. The complete monograph is FREE with the purchase of six or more archived Brooks Brothers catalogs, available for purchase from @philabooks+philadelphia. Otherwise, the monograph is available at $10.00).