Nobody but Brooks Brothers

Nobody but Brooks Brothers

Who else but Brooks Brothers could dress the cast of Gatsby? All 150-plus extras and the leads in over 500 tailored outfits for day and night comprising around 1,700 pieces, and those actors on their public rounds.  Brooks Brothers had been around since 1818 but it was not until the first decades of the 20th century that they knew their bread and butter: Ivy Leaguers and the many others who wanted to dress like them.


The firm courted Ivy Leaguers. Brooks Brothers advertised in Princeton’s yearbook published in 1875 and held a full page every year until the mid-1950s. In 1915, they moved their headquarters to 346 Madison, a locale that was conveniently close to the Harvard and Yale Club. The first half of the twentieth century saw tremendous growth of the New York City-based company. They opened a major store in Boston in 1928, as well as seasonal stores in Newport and Palm Beach.

TGG-1-men-style-powerMerchandise was at the heart of their success. Brooks introduced a four-button version of its Number One Sack Suit in 1900, and it became the standard for college men across the country. In 1913, Brooks rolled out its enduringly popular three-button model, which was quickly adopted at elite Eastern schools, such as Princeton, Yale, and Columbia. There, collegians paired the suit with a button-down collar shirt, which featured a soft, non-detachable collar. Brooks Brothers claimed to have brought the shirt from England where polo players favored it to keep collars from flapping in their faces. The shirt, Brooks Brothers claims, was “the single most imitated item in American clothing history.” By 1920, the shirt, now called a button down oxford, was “firmly entrenched as a fashion in Eastern colleges” and within a decade, made it to Penn State and the like in the mid-west.[1] Additionally, Brooks Brothers pioneered the striped “rep” tie and the khaki-sports-coat combo.

The fiction of the Princeton’s F. Scott Fitzgerald forged the connection between the University and the brand in the public’s consciousness. Fitzgerald, who was such a Brooks Brothers fan he had his military uniform tailored there, makes references to the company in Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned, as well as in several of his short stories. He calls the firm River Brothers to Baker Brothers to Brooks—names thinly veiled for those in the know.

In This Side of Paradise, Tom Parke D’Invilliers (a character based on his Princeton classmate and famed poet John Peale Bishop) gets a makeover to be “clothed by Brooks, shod by Franks.” The pressure of staying in step with the styles took its toll on D’Invilliers, who became disillusioned by the snobbish air of Princeton. Tom declared, “I want to go where people aren’t barred because of the color of their neckties and the roll of their coats.” Amory quickly replied, “You can’t Tom. Wherever you go now you will always unconsciously apply these standards of ‘having it’ or ‘lacking it.’ For better or worse, we’ve stamped you. You’re a Princeton type.” [2]

The Princeton type wore Brooks Brothers. So did the Yale type, the Harvard type (though slightly more sloppily) and the Dartmouth type (though noticeably more sloppily).

Images courtesy of styleforumnet & MenStylePower

[1] John William Cooke. Brooks Brothers: Generations of Style: Its All about the Clothing. (New York: 2003), 64. The term “Oxford” was used to describe the button-down collar shirt, but it takes its name from the weave of the fabric. The weave was named for the University of Oxford.

[2] F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York: Pocket Books, 1995), 73; 77. Shoemakers Franks Brothers, founded in 1865 and also based in New York, had ads in the Daily Princetonian as early as 1903.