Brooks Brothers: Their History & A Brand Evaluation

Brooks Brothers is now more than 200 years old and it has played a defining role in shaping the course of American style and menswear. With this said, though, are their offerings worth buying today? Here are our thoughts on what to buy (and not to buy) from Brooks Brothers.

In many ways, they served to democratize style, making clothing more accessible, affordable, and wearable for the masses. They’re known for their quality, conservative looks, and for manufacturing in the United States for most of their history. They’ve outfitted 40 of the 45 American presidents and pretty much every star during the Golden Age of Hollywood wore Brooks Brothers clothing.

Despite this illustrious history, though, they have had to change with the times–both for the better and for the worse. As clothing has gotten more and more casual day-to-day for most people, the classic staples that Brooks Brothers is known for have gotten less and less popular over time. Also, the quality of much of their product has declined slightly over the years as some production has moved overseas. This, of course, isn’t an uncommon story in men’s ready-to-wear fashion.

Brooks Brothers History

History of Brooks Brothers

Brooks Brothers is probably the oldest and most famous American clothing company that’s still in existence. It was founded in 1818 by Henry Brooks and his sons inherited the company hence the name Brooks Brothers. In 1849, they were the first company to introduce ready-to-wear clothing and the next year in 1850, their famous Golden Fleece logo was adopted.

Brooks Brothers in 1818

Brooks Brothers in 1818

One of Brooks Brothers’ most famous customers around this time in the mid 19th century was Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he was assassinated wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. While Lincoln himself was a loyal customer, the Union Army which he presided over did not fare so well when it came to their Brooks Brothers clothing. The company secured the contracts to outfit the Union Army by somewhat questionable means. Also, when quality wool became scarce, they pressed together decaying rags and other scraps of fabric into something resembling more quality garments, and then outfitted the Union Army.

Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece Logo

Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece Logo

Unfortunately, these uniforms didn’t stay together very well and they literally fell apart the first time they were used in battle when it rained. The Union Army eventually spent $45,000 (equivalent to about $11 million in today’s money) to replace these poor uniforms. Brooks Brothers didn’t lower their prices for these shoddy materials and in fact, the word “shoddy” was coined at this time to describe the poor and somewhat fake product that the Union Army had been given.

Vintage Brooks Brothers Ad

Vintage Brooks Brothers Ad

Here’s an interesting fact: from 1865 to 2003, Brooks Brothers did not produce a ready-to-wear black suit. There are multiple theories as to why this is. The first of these is that they didn’t produce a black suit out of respect for Abraham Lincoln who, as we said, was killed while wearing a black Brooks Brothers suit. Granted, however, his was bespoke because of his tall and thin frame. The more likely explanation, though, is that Brooks Brothers typically catered to a more well-heeled clientele, and black suits were not often worn by these upper classes (usually only by servants and the deceased). Whatever the case may be, they have indeed offered a ready-to-wear black suiting option since 2003.

Sack Suit by Brooks Brothers without vertical front darts

Sack Suit by Brooks Brothers without vertical front darts

In 1870, the company was the first to introduce seersucker suits, but they wouldn’t really see popularity for another 30 years or so. Also, around the turn of the 20th century, they introduced what would become one of their more popular and successful models, the sack suit. This style would become synonymous with Brooks Brothers, as well as American suiting more generally. The more generous cut of these sack suits allowed them to fit a wider array of body types off the rack, and thus they were very financially successful for the company.

OCBD Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt by Brooks Brothers

OCBD Oxford Cloth Button Down Shirt by Brooks Brothers

Also around the turn of the 20th century, John E. Brooks invented the OCBD or Oxford cloth button-down shirt. He had observed shirts with button-down collars during a polo game, and the OCBD would go on to become particularly popular among athletes like tennis players in the 1920s and ’30s. In addition to its casual styling, this was largely because of the breathable weave of the fabric used to make the shirts. Later on, mid-century style icons like JFK and Gianni Agnelli would go on to make the OCBD an iconic menswear staple.

Madras by Brooks Brothers

Madras by Brooks Brothers

In 1902, they introduced the Madras fabric to the United States. Also, they introduced the “Repp” tie to the United States altering the direction of the regimental stripe so that it could be worn by civilians instead of just military personnel, as had traditionally been done in the United Kingdom.

In 1908, they would import foulard (or block silk printed) ties from the United Kingdom to the United States. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 publication, This Side of Paradise, made many references to Brooks Brothers and it would, in turn, influence the style of many college men across the United States. Later, Brooks Brothers would introduce clothing lines based around Fitzgerald’s work, The Great Gatsby, when it was adapted for film.

Gatsby Club blazer display at Brooks Brothers on Madison Ave

Gatsby Club blazer display at Brooks Brothers on Madison Ave

In 1946, the Brooks family sold the company to Julius Garfinckel & Company, which would actually make the overall style of most of the company’s garments even more traditional than they had been before. In 1953, working with DuPont, Brooks Brothers released Brooksweave, a fabric that blended cotton and Dacron for a no-wrinkle finish. We mentioned John F. Kennedy before, and he also famously favored the “number two” style Brooks Brothers two-button suit, which showcased his youthful style. The company would change hands again several times over the ensuing decades; it’s currently owned by the Brooks Brothers group which is, in turn, privately owned by the Italian billionaire, Claudio Del Vecchio, the son of the founder of Luxottica eyewear.

Brooks Brothers Today

Today, Brooks Brothers does still maintain some manufacturing in the United States–however, it’s important to note that not many fabrics are actually produced and woven here in the US. So, when things are manufactured in the United States, what they’re today mostly referring to is the assembly of these fabrics. Products currently made in the US include their Golden Fleece line of suits, many of their 1818 line of suits (but not all), ties which are cut and piled in Long Island, and many shirts (but again, not all), which are made primarily in North Carolina.

Mad Men 1960's Style

Mad Men 1960’s Style

We should also note that Brooks Brothers clothes are an important staple of many historical film production companies and TV presenters. In addition to The Great Gatsby, Brooks Brothers suits were also commonly seen on the television show Mad Men, and late-night host Stephen Colbert is outfitted in Brooks Brothers suits (among others). So, as you can tell from this long (but not completely faultless) historical overview, Brooks Brothers has been a staple of the American menswear scene for many many decades. They deserve respect for influencing the style of menswear in every era since their founding, as well as democratizing the suit.

What Should You Buy from Brooks Brothers?

Brooks Brothers is a full-service clothing house, so they offer a wide variety of products. Let’s go over what they currently offer to discuss what you should incorporate into your wardrobe. By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that we mostly advocate you stick to the classics!

Brooks Brothers White Tie shirt with stiff single cuffs incorrectly described as French Cuff Tuxedo shirt

Brooks Brothers White Tie shirt with stiff single cuffs incorrectly described as French Cuff Tuxedo shirt

Tuxedo Shirts

The first item we recommend you buy is tuxedo shirts. Black Tie, of course, has a relatively strict dress code, and when you want to get all of the details right, a Brooks Brothers tuxedo shirt can get you there. They offer both pleated front and bib front models, and also offer a detachable wing collar, if you’re truly into that crisp look.

A classically styled pair of formal pumps from Brooks Brothers, featuring pinched bows.

A classically styled pair of formal pumps from Brooks Brothers, featuring pinched bows.

Opera Pumps

Along those same lines, the next item we recommend you pick up if you’re so inclined is a pair of traditional opera pumps. These are the most formal shoes that a man can wear, suitable for both Black Tie and White Tie, and Brooks Brothers still offers them.

Sweaters

Sweaters are, of course, a classic winter addition to any man’s wardrobe when worn in the correct way. By this, we mean that there are many styles of sweater that Brooks Brothers offers, but there are a select few that we would actually recommend. You should probably opt for classic styling, and by this we mean things like turtlenecks, cardigans, v-necks, and shawl collars. Conversely, you probably don’t want to get anything with zippers, crew-necks, or hoods. Also, rather than synthetics, you should go for natural materials like cotton, wool, merino, and cashmere.

Crewneck sweater

Crewneck sweaters are best avoided.

We’d recommend that you opt for heavier weight sweaters, as there are several reasons to avoid thinner ones. Fine or fine-gauge knit sweaters are thin and kind of useless, as they won’t keep you very warm and they also won’t be as durable. Furthermore, any layers you wear underneath them will probably show through. For all of these reasons, opting for thicker weights of knitwear will be best.

You’ll also want to go for classic patterns and colors like fair isle, tennis sweaters, solids, or melange solids (where the yarn is multiple colors), and rich colors like green, red, blue, and purple that will contrast nicely with a variety of looks. Consider, for example, some of the following: a merino wool fisherman sweater, a cotton shawl collar cable cardigan, lamb’s wool fair isle sweaters, roll neck cardigans in merino wool, or cotton turtleneck sweaters.

Chinos

We did a little survey on our YouTube community page asking what you’d like to see us mention from Brooks Brothers, and chinos came up repeatedly. Now, we can’t speak to this from personal experience, but there are a number of factors that point toward Brooks Brothers chinos being a great pair of pants.

  1. The first would be their relatively wide range of colors, which includes all of the usual and neutral shades plus a variety of bolder options, as well.
  2. They’ve also got six different fit types, which is impressive, and they offer both pleated and flat-fronted models, as well as ones with or without cuffs, depending on your preference. Rather than being offered in the standard and somewhat vague small-medium-large scheme, they are offered by waist size and inseam size, so you can get a better fit. They’re made from stretch cotton twill, which is typically a blend of 98% cotton and 2% spandex. The spandex isn’t exactly classic, of course, but it’s certainly better than something like a polyester or rayon blend would be.
  3. Finally, they’re treated to be wrinkle-resistant. Not everyone necessarily considers this to be a bonus, as wrinkle-free or wrinkle-resistant fabrics are typically treated with a formaldehyde solution, which may give some men pause. However, if you do appreciate the convenience factor of wrinkle-free and wrinkle-resistant clothing, the option is there in their chinos. In fact, Brooks Brothers claims that its “Advantage” chinos are one of its bestsellers.

Overcoats

Brooks Brothers is one of the few off-the-rack companies that still offers a variety of overcoats in natural materials and classic silhouettes. They are often pricey, as you’ll typically spend anywhere from $500-2000, but the look is quintessentially classic; if you treat the garment well, you should get many years of use out of it, therefore bringing that important cost-per-wear metric down considerably. Stick with more traditional overcoats, though, and don’t go for the more modern options like leather jackets, bomber jackets, waxed cotton, down-filled jackets, and so on (as other brands do these styles better).

Belstaff Trialmaster Jacket in Waxed Black

A Belstaff Trialmaster jacket would be a superior leather jacket choice.

We’d recommend a classic silhouette in a natural fiber-based coat like wool, merino wool, cashmere, camel hair, or a blend of these fibers. Also, skip the nylon and skip the color black, as everybody has a black overcoat, it’s a lifeless color, and it’s ultimately kind of boring. Most of their overcoat options come in colors like navy, camel, and charcoal so you should go for those instead.

Some models are even double-breasted, and they can come in subtle and elegant patterns like herringbone, Prince of Wales check, or windowpane. Take a particularly close look at their 100% camel hair polo coats in either single- or double-breasted configuration. Brooks Brothers pioneered this look and made it famous in the 1920s and ’30s, and camel hair is warm and durable, so these coats are a particularly smart option. Other models to consider would be top coats, Chesterfields, and officer’s coats.

Oxford Cloth Button-Down Shirts (OCBD)

We would, of course, be remiss if we didn’t mention the OCBD which was, in fact, Brooks Brothers’ invention. They have fine fit options, from slim to relaxed, and they come in classic styling, patterns, and colors. Also, the look of these shirts is meant to be a bit more relaxed, so it is okay if the fit isn’t 100% perfect for you.

Brooks Brothers Non Iron Dress Shirt

A non-iron dress shirt from Brooks Brothers

Non-Iron Dress Shirts

Brooks Brothers’ non-iron dress shirts did also come up repeatedly in our comments, but again, we don’t have any personal experience with them. Still, they do have something of a cult following. As we said before with the chino pants, this non-iron claim is largely sourced from the fact that these shirts are coated in a formaldehyde solution; this may not necessarily be something you want up against your skin, and it can also come out in the wash over time, meaning that non-iron quality might become less effective. They’re often offered in bundles of four shirts for $199, so they are fairly reasonably priced. Non-iron dress shirts certainly aren’t for everyone, but if it’s something you think you’d be interested in, they might be worth a try.

Shoes

We also recommend their shoes; specifically, the models that run under the Peal & Company brand name. Although Peal & Company actually doesn’t exist anymore as a shoemaker in its own right, Brooks Brothers purchased the brand in the 1960s, and since then, they have continued to produce shoes under that name to this day. The shoes are typically made in England, most commonly by Crockett & Jones, and they feature classic styling and a Goodyear welt.

They’re typically priced at around $700–so again, they’re not inexpensive, but they will sometimes be offered on sale. If you could get a pair at 50% off, for example, this would be a good deal. One problem you may encounter is that they don’t seem to restock very often, sometimes just once a year, so they do tend to run out of the most common men’s shoe sizes. Also, you may sometimes find that they’re offering cordovan shoes which are made by Alden; this is another trusted men’s shoe brand, and if you do see them on offer, we’d recommend you pick them up.

Pajamas

They are offered in a wide variety of styles including thin robes, checked cotton flannels, or shirt fabric styles. Not every man wears traditionally styled pajamas, of course, but if you’re in the market for that sort of thing, Brooks Brothers does have some good options.

Preston Vintage Brooks Brothers Tie

Preston Schlueter wearing a vintage Brooks Brothers tie

Vintage Items

Our final pick in the what to buy category is vintage Brooks Brothers items. As with a great many clothing brands, the overall quality of Brooks Brothers garments has declined slightly over time but they did have higher quality standards in the past. If you happen to run across Brooks Brothers products in good condition in vintage shops, don’t hesitate to buy them.

What Are No-Gos From Brooks Brothers?

We’d say first off that you should avoid trendier items. For example, a $75 wristband or a cable-knit hooded sweatshirt. Trendy pieces like these really aren’t Brooks Brothers forte and as such, we’d say that you should steer clear of them. Also, we wouldn’t recommend their socks as they’re often in a polyester-nylon blend and they’re too short, so they will often slide down. Conversely, we’d recommend something like an over-the-calf sock in silk or cotton, and we offer several models like these in the Fort Belvedere shop.

Pink and grey Fort Belvedere socks

Pink and gray shadow stripe socks from Fort Belvedere

Other items we’d recommend that you avoid from Brooks Brothers would include t-shirts, sneakers, bomber jackets, jeans, and backpacks.

Conclusion

The Brooks Brothers brand has stood the test of time to become a true American menswear icon. While not all of the items they offer these days are exactly things that we would recommend, there are still several products we think are good buys.

If you’ve got any other suggestions on what to buy or avoid from Brooks Brothers, share with us in the comments section!

Summary

Brooks Brothers - The History of an American Haberdashery

Article Name

Brooks Brothers – The History of an American Haberdashery

Description

Learn all about Brooks Brothers which was founded in 1818, dressed clients like Lincoln & became the #1 menswear store in America’s history

Author

Sven Raphael Schneider & Preston Schlueter

Publisher

Gentleman’s Gazette

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