Brooks Brothers: American Icon (Part 2)

Continued from Part I

After the death of Henry Sands Brooks in 1833, control of the still small but now established company was passed to his eldest son, Henry, Jr.  In 1850, Henry’s three sons inherited the family business and renamed it “Brooks Brothers.”

As the company grew, so did the buildings which housed it.  After several intermediate moves, Brooks Brothers relocated to Broadway and 22nd Street, where it enjoyed 30 years of prosperity.

However, by 1915 a new larger home was needed, so that summer Brooks moved to the now legendary 346 Madison Avenue, at 44th Street.  Unlike its first home, the new 10-story building, built specifically to house Brooks Brothers, had the good fortune to be located in the heart of New York’s expanding social, cultural and high-end retail hub.  As modern day midtown Manhattan evolved and grew, Brooks Brothers did as well, dressing generations for lawyer, financiers, bankers and corporate titans.


This modern take on the Golden Fleece logo is from Thom Browne's "Black Fleece" capsule collection for Brooks Brothers.The iconic Golden Fleece symbol was adopted as the company’s logo sometime in the mid-1850s. A sheep suspended in a ribbon had long been a symbol of British woolen merchants and also was the symbol of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.  In a clever blending of two major influences that helped drive the company to success, the logo was chosen to represent both Brooks Brothers’ European sartorial heritage and its commitment to quality.  In its early incarnation, Brooks traded in a distinctly British style of clothing.  The reasoning behind this approach was fairly simple – that was the style of clothing that customers demanded and with which they identified taste, influence and sartorial propriety.

As the company grew into its own and began to develop a distinctively American sense of fashion – meaning a less fitted and formal cut, looser fabrics, natural shoulders and undarted jackets – the house style we now identify with Brooks Brothers emerged.  The Golden Fleece logo effectively captured both the historic British nature of the brand’s early history and its authentic American roots.

The original and distinctive oval label bearing the Golden Fleece, abandoned during the dark days of the Marks & Spencer era, was reconstituted under the firm’s current owner and remains one of the most recognized in the world of fashion.

Though it had an active custom department throughout its early history, Brooks Brothers’ best known legacy is its development of the ready-to-wear clothing retail model.  The availability of such high quality ready-made clothes literally changed how and why men dressed.

No longer tied to tailors and the expensive and lengthy process of fittings, more men were able to properly dress for business and social situations.  And the ability to purchase an almost entirely ready-made high-quality wardrobe was of enormous benefit to Brooks’ customers boarding the ships down on the East River and bound for distant ports.

It also allowed men who otherwise could never afford a professional suit of clothes to dress well, blurring the long established demarcations of class.  In a very real way, the advent of ready-to-wear clothing was a cultural shift that changed how men identified and presented themselves.

The company pioneered much of what we now consider to be classic conservative, American dress.  In 1870, Brooks was the first to sell seersucker suits in the U.S.

In 1895, the company introduced the ‘Number One’ sack suit, regarded as the first genuinely American suit.  It offered a single-breasted jacket, soft natural shoulder and full, plain front pants.  Most importantly, the suit was designed to fit all body types while providing the wearer with classic styling. In fact, the Number One is such an iconic American classic that its direct descendant still made today.

Perhaps the most legendary and iconic Brooks garment was actually discovered on a trip to England in 1896 by John E. Brooks, Henry Sands Brooks’ grandson.

While taking in a polo match, he was captivated by the non-flapping shirt collars worn by the English polo players.  To prevent the players from being whipped in the face during full-speed gallops, the collars were held in place by small buttons.

Being an industrious New Yorker and a smart salesman, John Brooks created his own version and thus was born the legendary Brooks Brothers button-down polo collared shirt.  It was an instant hit with men who had tired of the stiff, detachable celluloid collar of the era, and became a best seller.

The social impact of a soft collared dress shirt should not be understated; it was a seismic shift in decorum where male dress was concerned.  Stiff Victorian sobriety was giving way to a new standard of comfortable peacockery.

So beloved is the Brooks button-down that in 1980 the shirt earned its own entry in the equally iconic Official Preppy Handbook (pages 140-141 for the curious).  The current wave of preppy/old school/vintage/Ivy League cognoscenti even have an equally prep acronym for the classic shirt.

The catchy shorthand of “OCBD” stands for oxford cloth button down and refers to any classically styled polo collar oxford.  But we all know that the real deal – the forerunner of all dress shirts – comes from Brooks Brothers.  To be continued in Part 3…

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  1. henry

    being a native New Yorker, and having worked at Madison Avenue and 57th street for over 9 years. have found this historic influentual mens wear historic journey very, very interesting. of course i have worn Brooks Brothers outfittig. neck ties and button down shirts. Imagine from 34th street to Italy for inspiration and survival. Oh Gap what have you done?..

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