BY: G. BRUCE BOYER
Bruce Boyer is one of the menswear greats. Aside from being an author on the subject many times over, the former fashion editor of GQ, Esquire and Town and Country is an authority on style for gentlemen of all ages. Here he explores Brooks Brothers’ role in the evolution of fashion as we know it today.
There’s a great deal of talk these days about vintage and retro and curated heritage brands. Tradition has become something of a commodity, it seems, rather than a history of beliefs and experiences. But for Brooks Brothers, authenticity is informed by nearly 200 years of history, even as the brand continues to evolve. Founder Henry Sands Brooks started a democratic revolution when he introduced high-quality, ready-made clothing to the general public in the early 19th century, and the brand has remained at the forefront ever since.
Countless staples of the modern wardrobe have their roots in the Brooks tradition. The slim, stylish, and youthful sack suit, with its soft, understated silhouette, was introduced by the firm at the turn of the 20th century and quickly became the look of choice for the Eastern Establishment. The following year, the button-down collar dress shirt upended men’s dressing. With its soft collar and cuffs, it was a major blow to the heavily starched shirts favored at the time. Brooks’ philosophy that men could be both well-dressed and comfortable was simply revolutionary.
In the second half of the 20th century, casually conservative clothing with a campus flair came into its own, as the G.I. Bill increased the number of college students ten-fold in the years immediately after the war. Bermuda shorts, polo shirts, white bucks and madras sports jackets were de rigeur, and Brooks Brothers was the favored source for the new leisurely look. Modern jazz musicians did their part to spread the word that Ivy-inspired clothes were the “coolest.”
To cater to a burgeoning American workforce, Brooks next launched the wash-and-wear shirt and the non-iron cotton dress shirt, which simplified the requirements of office dressing. Greater ease of wear also drove the popularity of the Brooks summer suit, made of blended lightweight poplin.
By the mid-20th century, Brooks Brothers was the most famous clothier in the world, and the Brooks style of clothing came to be known as the Madison Avenue approach, the Ivy League style or simply the “Brooks Brothers Look.” The prototypical outfit was understated yet very distinctive: a soft grey flannel suit; white, blue or pink oxford button-down, silk foulard tie and calfskin brogues. Brooks also added to its line of lightweight summer wear by advocating their “Brooksweave” quick-drying shirts and their famous wash-and-wear “poplin” suits, a blend of cotton-synthetic fiber (offered in tasteful tan, navy and olive green).
In four short years Brooks Brothers will reach its 200th anniversary. During that time the firm’s designs have revolutionized dressing many times over. By continuing to wed craftsmanship and technology while honoring its history, Brooks Brothers is sure to be at the fore of many more revolutions in the years to come.