Restoration at 346 Madison: In 1956 Brooks Brothers' President Said, 'Whenever We Conteplate Changing Anything around Here, a Perceptible Shudder Goes through the Store'

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, September 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Restoration at 346 Madison: In 1956 Brooks Brothers' President Said, 'Whenever We Conteplate Changing Anything around Here, a Perceptible Shudder Goes through the Store'


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

This man now--surely he came from that heavenly world, that divine position at the center of things where choice is unlimited.

--MARY McCARTHY, "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt" (1941)

Some business stories are social parables. One such is the long, stately rise, then the swift, undignified descent, and now the resurrection of Brooks Brothers, the men's clothier that long ago became one of America's iconic brands.

It was founded in 1818 near the southern tip of a mostly rural Manhattan. The day the store opened--the store that was to define American male gentility--the city council was fretting about swine in the streets.

As Manhattanites moved north, so did the store, several times. By 1915 it had moved to 346 Madison, at the corner of 44th, a store with dark wood and soft lighting from Tiffany chandeliers. Not until 1928 did Brooks Brothers open a second store, on Newbury Street in Boston. But long before that, 346 Madison had become for many men the quiet definer of sartorial good taste.

Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Hooker bought Civil War uniforms from Brooks Brothers. Lincoln wore a Brooks Brothers overcoat to his second Inauguration, and to Ford's Theatre. He was buried in a Brooks Brothers suit. J. P. Morgan, when he was a boy, was taken to Brooks Brothers for his first suit, and 60 years later was still buying suits there from the same salesman.

But although Brooks Brothers catered to the carriage trade, by pioneering high-quality ready-made garments it helped democratize dress. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson detested each other but each was inaugurated in a Brooks Brothers suit. And after World War I, rising men in a nation brimming with confidence made Brooks Brothers a convenient literary symbol. Fitzgerald in "This Side of Paradise," Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises," John O'Hara, Somerset Maugham and J. P. Marquand all used Brooks Brothers to suggest character traits--not always flatteringly. Clark Gable and Fred Astaire were Brooks Brothers customers.

Emblematic of Brooks Brothers' power to define classicism was--is--what the company's official history rightly calls "the single most imitated item in American clothing history." It is the shirt with a button-down "polo collar," so-named because a grandson of the founder, visiting England, liked the way polo players buttoned down their collars to keep them from flapping during play.

The 1950s are disparaged by advanced thinkers as "buttoned down," meaning too reticent and emotionally reserved. …

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