Brooks Brothers, storied clothiers, best known for being the couturiers who outfitted 41 of the 45 American Presidents, filed for bankruptcy last week in the US. Brooks Brothers survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and even managed to stay afloat as dress standards eased in the office, and workplaces worldwide.
Brooks Brothers have had the honour of dressing almost every U.S. President since they opened way back on April 7, 1818. Henry Sands Brooks (1772-1833) opened H. & D. H. Brooks & Co. on the northeast corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Manhattan, New York after purchasing the building in an auction for a princely sum of US$ 15,250. He proclaimed that his guiding principle was, "To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest body, to sell it at a fair profit, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise. For 202 years, Brooks Brothers has abided by that promise.
Out of all the illustrious patrons of Brooks Brothers - Hollywood royalty, nobility and titans of industry among them - perhaps none have been of greater stature than the many Presidents of the United States who have trusted Brooks for their sartorial needs. John F. Kennedy was one of the most prominent Brooks Brothers clients of modern times, and he’s just one among many presidents (41, to be exact) whom Brooks claimed as clients.
The connection between Brooks Brothers and the Office of the President started early. Brooks Brothers began creating military uniforms as early as 1818 itself for veterans of the War of 1812, and then came to the attention of military commanders who would later hold the Office of Chief Executive as well. In Brooks Brothers’ archives is a handwritten order from then Quartermaster of the Army Chester A. Arthur (later to become one of American history’s most respected presidents) for three hundred overcoats for a Union regiment, dated 1861.
Indeed, one of Brooks Brothers’ most illustrious presidential patrons was none other than Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln’s unusual stature (he stood at six feet, four inches) required custom-tailoring, which made him a frequent visitor. One of his most famous purchases was a frock coat worn to his second inauguration. It was not only custom-made but featured a custom-embroidered lining featuring an American eagle and a banner that read “One Country, One Destiny.” Sadly, Lincoln was to wear the same frock coat on the evening of the fatal attack at Ford’s Theatre.
The tradition of dressing the chief executive continued down through subsequent generations. Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt all wore Brooks Brothers to their inaugurations. Roosevelt so admired Brooks Brothers tailoring that he had the company custom-tailor the uniform he wore as a commander of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment. More on that later.
Brooks Brothers' two-button suits were a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. He was wearing a grey Brooks Brothers’ suit when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963 at Dallas. Incidentally, even his white boxer shorts were from Brooks Brothers. On the day he was assassinated in Dallas, Kennedy was wearing a white striped Brooks Brothers shirt with white buttons down a front placket. In a nod to patriotism, the shirt had alternating sets of thin triple stripes in dark navy and rust red.
Interestingly, Kennedy’s striped ties had stripes in both the American (right-down-to-left) and British (left-down-to-right) directions. Tie stripe directions can be traced back to the 1920s when Brooks Brothers (of course) first brought the regimental tie to the United States. Fearing that the Brits would be upset to see an American businessman wearing the striped tie of a respected old English school, Brooks Brothers wisely reversed the direction of the stripes and the American right-hand-high striped necktie was born.
JFK was a Brooks Brothers man, through and through. For his wedding in 1953 the groomsmen’s gifts were monogrammed umbrellas from Brooks Brothers, and his underwear (light blue cotton boxer shorts in size 34) also came from the same house! As such, it doesn’t come as a surprise that most of his suits, as mentioned before, came from there as well.
United States President Ulysses S. Grant began his association with Brooks Brothers during the Civil War, when he ordered tailored uniforms for the Union officers in the American Civil War. President Theodore Roosevelt was also said to be very fond of Brooks Brothers' clothes; he even ordered his dress uniform for the Spanish-American War at Brooks Brothers. Many more presidents, including Herbert Hoover, Chester Arthur, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barrack Obama were known to wear Brooks Brothers’ clothing lines. Franklin Roosevelt reportedly wore a Brooks Brothers collared cape and fedora at the Yalta Conference in 1945.
For the first time, after a continuing love affair with the White House inhabitants for two centuries, last year Brooks Brothers partnered with the White House Historical Association to bring to market The Presidential Collection, an exclusive set of ties and pocket squares that combine classic Brooks Brothers style with the grandeur and prestige of the White House. The White House Historical Association, founded in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the Executive Mansion. Proceeds from its storefront (including this collection) go toward the Association’s mission to preserve, protect and provide public access to the rich history of the White House.
This Historical collection consists of three neckties and three reversible bow ties, all set in red, blue and navy, as well as a pocket square depicting the Truman Presidential Seal. Each piece is made from 100% silk and crafted in the United States. The Truman Seal was created by Executive Order 9646, which officially defined the Presidential Coat of Arms and Seal. While previous Presidential seals depicted an eagle looking to the right toward a bundle of arrows in its talon, the Truman Seal has the eagle facing toward an olive branch to its left, symbolizing peace. Brooks supposedly got exclusive merchandising rights to this significant piece of history.
The Golden Fleece symbol of Brooks Brothers was adopted as the company's trademark in 1850. A wooly sheep suspended in a ribbon had long been a symbol of British woolen merchants. Dating from the fifteenth century, the image had been the emblem of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In classical Greek mythology, a magical flying ram, or Golden Fleece, was sought by Jason and the Argonauts. Brooks Brothers adapted and adopted their logo from there.
The normally tradition deviant, Donald Trump, for once stayed true to past precedents. When he was sworn in as the 45th president of the U.S., the commander in chief elected for a gray suit, a dark blue cashmere overcoat that was unbuttoned to reveal a starched white shirt with a tall spread collar and a very long shiny, red silk tie. The coat and the shirt are believed to have been Brooks Brothers for sure. But who made the tie and the single-breasted, two-button gray suit was anybody’s guess. Brooks did not step forward to take credit, though many said they were custom-stitched for the bulky President Trump. Not only President Trump, but even the First Lady Melania Trump has been seen sporting Brooks Brothers’ Houndstooth Checked Pants. Daughter Ivanka Trump too has been spotted in Brooks’ Houndstooth Checked Stretch Wool Belted Jacket and even in a Brooks’ Double Breasted Stretch Wool Blazer.
For his first inauguration in 2009, then-President Obama also opted for a black Brooks Brothers cashmere coat, which he wore again at Trump’s swearing-in, and a burgundy cashmere scarf, black leather gloves and a textured red tie. Most of them from Brooks. For the second ceremony in 2013, Obama went with a navy suit, which was designed by Martin Greenfield, and a light blue tie to match Michelle Obama’s Thom Browne ensemble. But his white shirt was once again from Brooks.
Since its founding in 1818, the company has dressed 40 of the 44 chief executives that preceded Trump. In recent times, only Ronald Reagan, who had a personal tailor in Los Angeles, and Jimmy Carter, did not have pieces of the brand in their wardrobe.
Brooks Brothers has been the leader of multiple major trends trends and disruptions within the textile industry. Their invention of the soft-collared button-down polo shirt - which was introduced in the 19th century - has been worn by everyone from Ivy League students to Clark Gable to Andy Warhol. This new kind of shirt, at the time, got rid of the need for stiff detachable linen collars. Brooks Brothers also popularized seersucker in the 1920s and was the first brand to bring linen crash, shantung silk, and cotton cord into the US. But the brand isn't just for men. As early as 1910, women were borrowing styles, like the polo coat, from Brooks Brothers. According to Life magazine, in the 1940s, female college students from Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley were demanding the brand make women's fit clothing. In 1949, the brand finally introduced their first ever woman-fit polo shirt.
It is sad to see Brooks Brothers go under. They may still survive, under new ownership but some of the gloss has been dented for now. With 40-odd POTUS (President of The United States) as its brand ambassadors, bankruptcy is certainly not the kind of inglorious end one associates with the venerated Brooks Brothers.
The most heart-rending story of Brooks’ Presidential association most certainly has to be that of how the brand discontinued the exact grey colour suit that President Kennedy was wearing when shot dead, from its men’s range – a touching tribute to their most fashion icon Presidential loyalist ever.
Well, today all you can do is to look back and say, “Well those were the days”.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal bought his first Brooks Brothers shirt way back in 1994 from New York; and has remained a fan of the brand ever since.