George Frazier had a story about the first time he met John O’Hara. The journalist and clotheshorse Frazier was introduced to the novelist O’Hara while hanging out at a Greenwich Village jazz club. The famously cranky O’Hara looked Frazier up and down before inviting him to have a drink. “You’re welcome at my table,” he announced. “You’re wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt.”
Frazier was known for popularizing the idea of duende. A Spanish folk term for a sort of goblin, duende came during the twentieth century to designate “style that’s truly alive”—a quality essential to those icons of Spanish culture, the poet, the flamenco singer, and the bullfighter. Frazier extended the concept to the exemplars of midcentury America. Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and Miles Davis had duende. So did the Brooks Brothers shirt that they, like Frazier, habitually wore.
As with any object that possesses duende, it is hard to articulate what is so special about that shirt. It has several distinctive features, but the magic lies almost entirely in the collar. Known as “button-down” to unreflective dressers and a “polo collar” to the enthusiast, the Brooks design involves points that are 33/8 inches long and fasten just over three inches apart—almost but not quite half the distance between the top two buttons along the central placket.
Through a further alchemy that no one has ever fully explained, this pattern produces a bell-shaped “roll” that flows gently away from the neck before the collar reconnects with the collarbone. Because no man’s neck has exactly the same dimensions as another’s, and no two men knot their ties in just the same way, the exact shape of the roll is unique to each wearer. Even when paired with the soberest of suits, the effect is singular and relaxed without being at all affected or vulgar. As O’Hara saw it, a man who wears a shirt like that is likely to possess the same qualities in other areas.
Yet it is not clear that this man exists anymore, at least in sufficient numbers to sustain the store that once dressed him. In July, Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it would close its three remaining U.S. factories. For those inclined to seek parallels, the fate of Brooks seems uncomfortably similar to the condition of the country as a whole: mismanaged, overextended, and at risk of evisceration by speculators who care little for its storied history.
It has become fashionable for apparel brands to emphasize their “heritage,” but Brooks really has one. Founded in Manhattan in 1818, it claims to have provided garments to forty-one of our forty-five chief magistrates. On the night he was assassinated, Lincoln was wearing a Brooks coat with “One Country, One Destiny” embroidered on the lining. Theodore Roosevelt ordered his dress uniforms for the Spanish-American War from Brooks’s then-thriving military tailoring operation.
More significant than its association with statesmen is Brooks Brothers’s central role in nearly every innovation in American menswear before the Second World War. In 1849, Brooks introduced the ready-to-wear suit, accelerating the transformation of clothing from an artisanal into an industrial product.
In addition to lowering prices, mass production of clothes encouraged an important aesthetic shift. Prior to the nineteenth century, European men’s clothing had been as intricately constructed, and as rich in color and texture, as women’s. By the dawn of the Victorian Age, menswear had settled on the basic elements of coat, trouser, and shirt in a palette of matte blues, grays, browns, black, and white. These relatively simple, interchangeable items were easier to make and sell on a large scale than their predecessors. Notwithstanding the continuing objections of aesthetic radicals, men’s style has never reversed what psychologist John Flügel called its “Great Renunciation.”
Brooks continued to provide custom apparel and military garb into the twentieth century, but the No. 1 Sack Suit, introduced in 1901, would become its signature item. A soft, tubular design that fit most men without extensive alterations, the sack suit was a happy compromise between formality and comfort. Quickly replacing the frock coat as standard businesswear, the sack suit was recognized as symbolic of the American way of life, just as closely tailored evening clothes epitomized the English gentleman.
The same inclination toward practicality informed the company’s other novelties. Brooks specialized in adapting for general use items that the rule-bound British wore only for sports. In this way, such enduring staples as the reverse stripe or “repp” tie, Harris tweed, the camel hair overcoat, and the Shetland sweater entered the American sartorial lexicon. So did that magical shirt, which family scion John E. Brooks claimed was inspired by English polo players’ habit of using pins to hold down their collar points.
By the early twentieth century, such attire was recognized as the uniform of the American upper class. In This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine’s mother insists that he be supplied with a wardrobe of Brooks suits before setting off for Princeton. John O’Hara, an Irish Catholic who wished desperately that he had attended an Ivy League college, made a point of dressing as if he had. His alter ego in BUtterfield 8, the journalist Jimmy Malloy, laments: “I wear Brooks clothes and I don’t eat salad with a spoon and I could probably play five-goal polo in two years, but I am still a Mick.”
Control of the company remained within the Brooks family until 1946, when it was sold to the Washington, D.C.–based department store chain Garfinckel’s. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was as part of this Jewish-American retail empire that Brooks Brothers enjoyed its widest appreciation. Adopted by athletes, actors, and musicians of non-patrician background, Brooks became a symbol of democratic prosperity. Shopping at Brooks wasn’t like going to a Savile Row tailor, with his subtly impertinent questioning about whether you dressed on the right or the left. If you had the dough you could walk out of the Madison Avenue flagship looking like the chairman of the board and with your dignity intact.
Not that the chairman of the board was wearing Brooks anymore. After the Second World War (when it promoted resource-saving economies, such as the two-piece suit and the flat-front trouser), Brooks ceased to be top of the line. The brand still benefitted from its association with statesmen, magnates, and celebrities. But its core customer was upper-middle class, upper-middle management, and, as the years wore on, upper-middle-aged. You might enter Brooks hoping to spy Cary Grant, or a Kennedy browsing ties. But for the most part the store was, as the New York Times recently put it, “a pit stop for commuters hopping the train from Grand Central to family life in the suburbs.”
Mary McCarthy had already used the brand to signify affluence without taste or purpose in her 1942 story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” The eponymous character is a sybarite and cad from Cleveland, of all unprepossessing places. In 1948, Brooks adapted McCarthy’s title for use in its own advertising. (Perhaps the copywriters hadn’t read the original.) In 1964, John Cheever appeared on the cover of Time magazine in what cognoscenti will immediately recognize as one of those legendary shirts. Was the poet laureate of suburban despair upholding the myth or, like McCarthy, mocking it? His quizzical expression makes it impossible to be sure. In the decades after World War II, Americans had come increasingly to regard the bourgeois wardrobe Brooks pioneered as the uniform of soulless conformity.
Of course, the decline of Brooks may be as much a business story as a cultural one. As the company changed hands—from Garfinckel’s to retail conglomerate Allied Stories in 1981, from Allied to British chain Marks & Spencer in 1988, and from M&S to the Retail Brand Alliance in 2001—it expanded from fewer than a dozen stores, all in major U.S. cities, to nearly five hundred locations around the world. Those leases, many in premium locations, were neither cheap nor easy to escape when market conditions changed. So, Brooks was pushed against the wall when the COVID-19 pandemic closed down shopping districts, annihilated demand for new clothing, and stopped flows of free-spending tourists.
Long before the pandemic, Brooks had struggled to adapt to changing tastes. An early embrace of business casual helped the company while competitors succumbed. But shifting its emphasis from suits to sweaters and chinos came at a price. Profit margins are smaller on knits and machine-washable garments than on tailored clothing. In order to make up lost revenue, Brooks had to sell ever larger volumes and find ways to reduce costs.
The result was a destructive cycle of discounting and quality reduction that undermined the brand without helping its bottom line. Whereas their fathers and grandfathers were proud to buy and wear Brooks, younger men knew the brand as little more than a source for serviceable basics. It didn’t help that Brooks redesigned the famous shirt in the mid-1990s, adding a collar lining that inhibited its elegant roll and alienated loyal customers. A reintroduced version of the classic shirt eschewed the lining, but still was somehow off. In 2015, New Yorker contributor Fran Leibowitz lamented that “I used to buy all my shirts at Brooks, but that was completely ruined.”
To recover its cachet, Brooks pursued aesthetic possibilities that cohered poorly with its British-inspired but unmistakably American history. The house look became rather Continental, with suppressed waists and low-rise trousers replacing the classic generous cut. The company also pursued partnerships with fashionable designers such as Thom Browne. The results included some thoughtfully updated classics. But they also included bizarre items like shorts suits and kilts, which must have puzzled most of the customers who chanced to behold them.
The cantankerous community of online traditional clothing enthusiasts tends to blame such missteps on Claudio Del Vecchio, the Italian billionaire whose company acquired Brooks in 2001 and who is accused of disregarding the company’s importance and influence. But it may be that Del Vecchio simply loved Brooks not wisely but too well—that he did everything imaginable to keep it afloat, without understanding how such desperate measures made it ever less worth saving.
Bankruptcy is not liquidation, and there is every reason to think Brooks will survive in some form. In the worst case, the shops will be closed entirely. Brooks would then live on as a label with no physical existence, producing piles of shoddy goods for sale by other retailers.
A better case would be retrenchment to core locations and products. Along with successful counterparts abroad, about fifty stores in the U.S. generate the vast majority of the company’s revenue. With trimmed product lines and a renewed commitment to quality, these stores could meet whatever demand survives our present house arrest for reasonably tasteful, reasonably comfortable clothing suitable for meetings, weddings, funerals, and similar occasions.
But the magnetic power Brooks once enjoyed has long since been forfeited to rivals. These newer brands are able to conjure up Brooks’s old romance with America, unburdened by the sociological baggage.
The most successful is Ralph Lauren, who worked for Brooks as a salesman in the early 1960s and was later threatened with legal action for appropriating the name “polo” for his own fantasia of Ivy League, classic Hollywood, and the Old West. Competitor J. Press, originally based in New Haven, survives under Japanese ownership, selling the sack suits and heavy tweeds that have vanished from Brooks showrooms. Collegiate stalwart The Andover Shop in Massachusetts and traditionalist O’Connell’s in upstate New York attract pilgrimages from enthusiasts. Specialists Mercer & Sons and Michael Spencer provide facsimiles of the famous Brooks shirts, and Ralph Lauren disciple Sid Mashburn has established a small chain that combines some of the early Brooks flair for mixing formal and casual with a flamboyant, Southern sensibility. Antiquarians Wooden Sleepers and Crowley Vintage unearth troves of “golden age” Brooks material for collectors.
Through these and other establishments, the Brooks duende continues to burn somewhere in the deeper recesses of the American imagination. Brooks Brothers is dead. Long live Brooks.
Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at the George Washington University and literary editor of Modern Age.