The sad end of Brooks Brothers

Farewell to one of the last honorable clothiers

Brooks Brothers.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Images, iStock)

In the midst of a pandemic that may well lead to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, one risks accusations of heartlessness by lamenting the fate of a men's clothier. Still, I think it would be churlish to say nothing about what has happened to Brooks Brothers, which recently filed for bankruptcy.

Only two years ago, America's oldest clothing company was celebrating its glorious two centuries of existence. Here was a company that had outfitted some 40 American presidents, one that still made things to a high standard of quality while managing to pay thousands of Americans honorable wages. This was true not only of its manufacturing concerns but of its stores, in which bygone notions of decency and professionalism in what we now call "customer service" were preserved as if in amber.

Many people have the wrong idea about the company founded in 1818 as H. and D.H. Brooks. So far from being elitist or "preppy," Brooks Brothers was remarkably egalitarian precisely because it had been worn so long by so many without significantly changing. It is a good thing in a republic, however far gone into decadence, for the president to be dressed in the same manner as the humblest citizen. Brooks, where I received my first real dress clothes, belongs to the noble but almost vanished tradition of cultural aspiration that once led millions of Americans of all class backgrounds to purchase encyclopedias and Time Life boxed sets of the great composers and to read Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples and Barbara Tuchman.

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These are not merely abstract concerns. The lamentable decline of American textile manufacturing has followed the same pattern as the collapse of so many industries. We now live in a world in which nearly everything is either a piece of junk made by wage slaves in China or Southeast Asia or a luxury good. Until recently, Brooks Brothers was a rare example of something that stood in between, well within the reach of anyone who wanted to make a good impression without attempting something too outré. It is not just that Brooks remained more or less affordable, especially if one took advantage of their once-infrequent sales: It was that their clothing was meant to flatter the appearance of normal-looking people, not the 19-year-old pouting French models for whom most high-end fashion is clearly designed. A one-time investment in a Brooks suit and a few shirts was sufficient for the wardrobe of that once plausible abstraction, the average American male.

The hollowing out of American industry is not, of course, the only cause of Brooks's woes. For six decades our public spaces have undergone a relentless casualization that began with the disappearance of the three-piece suit and has ended with the ubiquitousness of jeans and t-shirts in offices, churches, and the sidelines of athletic events, where Bear Bryant's houndstooth jacket and fedora would now be as startling as an Elizabethan doublet. Like so many seemingly progressive changes, the motivations underlying this evolution have been neither charitable nor democratic. What a billionaire CEO is telling you when he shows up to a shareholder meeting in a hooded sweatshirt or athleisure wear that costs more than most people's mortgage is that your sense of dignity means nothing to him: he is above you no matter how both of you are dressed. It is the ultimate put-down. The recent lockdowns have only exacerbated these trends, to the point that I seriously doubt Brooks will be the last dress clothing outlet to go under.

What exactly the future holds for Brooks is unclear. It has been announced that a fifth of its stores will be closed along with all three of its American factories. At one of the latter, in Haverill, Massachusetts, it has become embroiled in a sordid dispute in which it has been accused by union officials of failing to offer severance to 400 employees, many of whom have served the company faithfully for decades. "This is the case of a failed company, not a failed brand," William Susman, the managing director of the ominously named Threadstone Advisors, said recently. To me this suggests that in the years to come Brooks will live on (like Carhartt and so many other great American companies before it) as a marketing tool, the label affixed to cheap counterfeits of its earlier products manufactured overseas and purchased on Amazon.

If we were a wiser country, we would not only bail out Brooks Brothers whatever the cost. We would also nationalize it, ensuring that in the generations to come every son of this republic can wear the uniform of Lincoln and the Roosevelts.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.