185 years of quiet style from Brooks Brothers


New book celebrates clothing company's lasting `sensibility'

October 25, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Brooks Brothers, the venerable menswear company whose conservative English-styled tailored suits, rep ties and button-down shirts have been an essential sartorial component for generations of presidents, preppies, tycoons, artists, film and stage stars, is celebrating its 185th birthday this year.

For the occasion, Brooks has published a lavishly illustrated company history. Appropriately, the cover of Generations of Style: It's All About the Clothing, by John William Cooke, is gray three-quarter-inch-wide pinstripe fabric.

Through the years, the Old Money-Ivy League-Establishment look has endured a variety of sartorial and societal changes.

"What has survived for 185 years is not just a store, a `retail operation,' but an entire sensibility, and that sensibility - a devotion to value and quality expressed through understated classicism - has survived not only world wars and civil wars and all the vagaries of economics and government, as the even more direct threats dealt them by bell-bottoms and love beads, Nehru jackets and neckties the size of tablecloths, and yes, even Casual Fridays," writes Cooke.

FOR THE RECORD - In Saturday's Today section, a photo of Theodore Roosevelt as a soldier in the Spanish-American War was mistakenly dated from 1923. The Spanish-American War occurred in 1898, and Roosevelt died in 1919.

Brooks traces its lineage to 1818, when Henry Sands Brooks established H.&D.H. Brooks & Co. at Catherine and Cherry streets in New York. He pledged to "make and deal only in merchandise of the best quality, to sell it at a fair profit only, and to deal only with people who seek and are capable of appreciating such merchandise." After his death in 1833, the business passed to Henry Brooks Jr., his eldest son.

His three sons, who inherited the business in 1850, changed its name to Brooks Brothers and adopted the Golden Fleece logo that still graces its products.

After operating several stores on Broadway, Brooks opened its 10-story flagship fortress at Madison Avenue and 44th Street in 1915, and later established two stores downtown in the city's financial district. Today, Brooks has grown to 80 stores nationwide, with locations also in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Italy. It is now owned by Retail Brand Alliance Inc. of Enfield, Conn., which purchased Brooks Brothers from Marks & Spencer for $225 million a year and a half ago.

While proper 19th-century New Yorkers shopped in its wood-paneled rooms, the company also had a flourishing sideline producing custom-made military uniforms - as early as the Mexican War. During the Civil War, Chester A. Arthur, the future president who was then Quartermaster General of New York, ordered enormous amounts of clothing.

Union generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker and Philip H. Sheridan were dressed by Brooks. During the Spanish-American War, it is quite likely that Theodore Roosevelt led the charge up San Juan Hill sporting a Brooks uniform.

Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. president to purchase his clothing from Brooks. He was wearing a Brooks suit, shirt and silk-lined overcoat when assassinated at Ford's Theatre in 1865. His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, gave the suit to a faithful White House servant. In 1968, when the U.S. Department of the Interior tried to purchase the suit for $50,000 from his descendants, The New York Times observed that it was the "most expensive Brooks Brothers suit of all time."

Other U.S. chief executives who have worn Brooks' fashions include John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, both Bushes, and Bill Clinton.

Clothing innovations that personify the Brooks look include the Number One sack suit, first introduced in 1900 in a four-button version and still available today.

"Brought up to date every year or so, it nevertheless hasn't changed essentially in half a century," wrote The New Yorker in 1938. "The coat has been copied time and time again by other tailors, but the true Brooks fanatic insists upon the natural shoulders, the distinctive roll of the lapels, the straight lines, the general uncompromising sloppiness of the genuine article. ... The Number One remains ... a whole philosophy of dress."

The other much-copied item introduced by Brooks is the button-down shirt, which debuted about the same time as the Number One suit. The button-down shirt, whose collar was attached to the neckband, was made wildly popular by the college set in the Roaring Twenties.

Brooks also introduced America to the Shetland sweater, colorful argyle socks and seersucker suits and jackets.

It's been said that Brooks opened stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco at the insistence of Clark Gable - who wore Brooks custom-made suits because he was unable to wear anything off the rack.

On the other hand, Fred Astaire wore Brooks rep silk ties not just around his neck, but at times around his waist. Rudolph Valentino, the silent screen star, was a big fan of the store's line of hats.

Characters in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara and J.P. Marquand dressed in Brooks' clothes, as did their creators.

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