America's Suit Maker: A History of Brooks Brothers
America's Suit Maker: A History of Brooks Brothers
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date January 12, 2018
In the spring of 1818, a small store opened in Lower Manhattan, and an all-American brand was born. While the history of most legacy brands is remarkable due to the sheer amount of dynamic shifts they’ve endured—the numerous ways the brands are able to reinvent themselves to stay relevant—Brooks Brothers is different. What makes the brand truly astonishing is how little the business has changed. In its 200 year history, Brooks Brothers has continued to offer an unyielding vision of American menswear, and decade upon decade, generations of loyal customers reward that steadfast resolve.
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Henry Sands Brooks opened his suit shop on April 7, 1818, at the age of forty-five. After spending years provisioning seafarers and traders, Brooks set his sights on high-end menswear. While focused on running a luxury retail establishment, he held firm to some traditions from his days serving sailors—if a seaman came into his shop and bought a suit, they got a complimentary dram of rum. Brooks ran the store for the remainder of his life (d. 1883) and watched his modest store grow into a thriving business. He passed the company on to his sons, who changed the stores name to H. & D.H. Brooks and Co. once the eldest two came of age, and then to Brooks Brothers in 1850 after the rest of the brothers joined the business. Brooks Brothers would remain family owned until 1956.
In the early days of the Republic, many powerful Americans preferred British or French tailors, as early Americans suffered from a notorious inferiority complex, feeling their goods simply could not compare with their European counterparts. As the country shaped its own identity, however, styles changed and the American suit as we know it emerged. So too, did Brooks Brothers.
By the mid-1800s, it was well-established that a man of certain pedigree would get his first Brooks Brothers suit in adolescence and would likely be buried in one. It was just as likely that a sole Brooks Brothers salesman would service you for most of your career, and his son would take over his tailor’s tape upon retirement. An early VIP client, John Voorhis, President of the New York City Board of Elections, started buying Brooks Brothers suits in mid-1800s and continued to do so until his death in 1932. From the onset, Brooks Brothers was about consistency and loyalty.
The Civil War further elevated the iconic brand. Union generals looked to Brooks Brothers for both uniforms and civilian attire. Generals Sherman, Sheridan, Hooker, and Grant all passed through the flagship store and President Lincoln himself was often seen in their fitting room. In fact, Brooks Brothers has the morbid distinction of having dressed Honest Abe for his final play at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln is one of thirty-nine Presidents served by Brooks Brothers.
The late-1800s was an era of innovation for Brooks Brothers. They rolled out their “Number One Sack Suit”, which inevitably became a signature item, and still heavily influences their clothes. Originally an English design, the Sack Suit is features a boxy-silhouete, with straight-leg cuffed trousers and a three-button jacket. Once the suit hit American shores in 1895, it caught on with the young American elite at prep schools and universities. As those men transitioned into corporate environments, the suit became synonymous with American formal style.
In 1900, Brooks Brothers introduced Americans to a wardrobe staple, the Oxford button down. Inspired by British polo outfits, the Oxford was the first shirt was the first with button-down collar tabs. Prior to the Oxford, collars were thick and heavily starched to maintain shape. The buttons—which were originally devised to keep collar wings from flapping during play—allowed businessmen to wear more comfortable, lightweight shirts that still held their ties securely. Since, they have become the standard in Ivy and eventually prep fashion. To this day, the slightest change to an Oxford stirs Ivy League style mavens to heated debate.
In addition to the iconic pieces we readily associate with Brooks Brothers, the company is behind a slew of other menswear innovations. Without Brooks Brothers, Bermuda shorts may not have made it to America. The same goes for seersucker suits, Madras patterns, and Harris Tweed fabrics. And that’s just to name a few.
Despite these innovations, it was Brooks Brothers’ steadfast conservatism that won the loyalty of America’s business class. By the middle of the 20th century, The Brooks Brothers sack suit became a board room standard. Interchangeably referred to as the “Madison Avenue Look,” “Ivy League Look,” and even “Brooks Brothers Look,” the grey flannel sack suit set the tone for American business dress for the rest of the century. As the U.S. became a global leader, the world followed suit.
A 1950 article in Coronet Magazine described the scene at Brooks Brothers at that time, and the description is as impressive now as it surely was then:
“Diplomats and prize fighters, dukes and bankers, Cabinet members and theatrical luminaries stroll every day through the ten-story building on Madison Avenue. The sight of Secretary of State Dean Acheson trying on a new overcoat, or Clark Gable testing a new pair of shoes, or the Duke of Windsor undecided between a red or green dressing gown causes scarcely a flurry. The reason is simply that the store itself is a national legend, as noted in its own right as any of its patrons.”
The ‘60s brought the Mod craze across the Atlantic and with it came a slimmer European sensibility. Still, many Brooks Brothers customers remained loyal to their sack suits. While the company did start offering some slimmer cuts, they firmly held onto their reputation as the businessmen’s standard. In a piece for Town and Country in 1981, G. Bruce Boyer described what made the Brooks Brothers style so appealing to American executive class:
“The line, whether for jackets or shirts, is freer flowing, more natural and loosely cut, than European clothing, which is generally more shaped and contoured. A Brooks jacket is often said to be not felt on the body, since it falls easily from the shoulders and has as little badding as a jacket can have and still have a constructed appearance.The look solidified in the 1940s, and Brooks has stuck with it and promoted it through all the ups and downs of masculine fashion trends…”
Bending, but not breaking with the trends has been Brooks Brothers forte for generations. Like many other brands, Brooks Brothers responded to the emergence of fast fashion by making more affordable lines. In the 90s, the company launched their “Wardrobe Concept” suit separates collection with $270 jackets and $125 trousers. Going even further, in 1993 Brooks Brothers released a suit that cost a total of $295—offering the full breadth of options . The transition from elitist to aspirational is not limited to a lower price tag. Brookes has expanded their children’s, women’s, and casual lines to become more competitive and offer the entire family a tried and tested vision of American style.
At Brooks Brothers, the business is all about a delicate balance between the brand’s buttoned up legacy and the its increased accessibility. They engage selectively in partnerships, ensuring their brand is protected when they do. They tapped the irreverent Thom Browne—arguably responsibly for the rebirth of the modern American suit—who served as designer for their more fashion-forward Black Fleece collection, which did brisk business for them between 2007-2015 when the line was shuttered. Browne, known for his increasingly absurdist reinventions of classic American business tropes—most notably the gray suit—felt right at home, toning down his signature aesthetic and presenting a slimmed down versions of Brooks Brothers staples in bold colors and unexpected fabrics. Like almost any American brand worth their salt, Brooks Brothers collaborated with Supreme in 2014. They even did a collection tied into the release of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. Still, with every collaboration, the Brooks Brother brand is clearly the focus.
Brooks Brothers customers appreciate a brand they can rely on and as such the company deliberates carefully over any change to their core offering. Last year, an article ran in New York Times, documented the subtle changes the brand has made to their Oxford shirts, and how close of attention brand loyalists pay to each shift:
“The upgrade to mother-of-pearl buttons, the addition of side gussets to the shirttails, even the disappearance of the breast pocket — these tweaks are no big deal, unless you are an emeritus professor wondering where now to stick your reading glasses. The removal of the collar’s interior lining, however, constitutes a major moment in the history of minutiae, as it reinstates a first-rate collar roll. With its points buttoned down, the unlined collar spreads and bends at its front edges to form an elegant bell curve, or maybe to slither a bit asymmetrically — a casually dashing soft contour among the strict lines of traditional men’s wear. This is the sort of detail in which God is said to exist. Philosophers of the Ivy League Look liken particularly dramatic collar rolls to the silhouettes of angels’ wings.”
While Brooks Brothers may appear a bit stodgy or stuck in their ways, in an age of hyper-trendiness and buzzwords, there is something to be said about having solid ground to stand on. While little is certain in life, it seems that as long as there are American businessmen, there will be Brooks Brothers.