"To make and deal only in merchandise of the finest quality, to sell it at a fair profit, and to deal with people who seek and appreciate such merchandise."
It wasn’t that I didn’t like the show, I had seen it a couple of times. It was just that I hadn’t had a day off in three weeks, was exhausted from the day, and needed some ‘down time’. So while my group was upstairs in the theatre watching, Meet John Doe, I slipped down to the basement museum and decided to take photos of the exhibits to test my camera’s abilities and to take advantage of the empty space. Normally I find the museum terribly claustrophobic and wait outside on the sidewalk to gather the students for our Peterson House (the house where Lincoln died) visit.
But tonight I was alone! It was my night in the museum!
How was I to know that on June 1st, Ford’s Theatre was supposed to close for eighteen months to update and reinforce their theatre as well as install a much-needed elevator? The museum was not really accessible since the chair lift rarely worked. Those who were physically challenged never got the chance to see the displays of his life, campaign, impact on the country, the assassination and its aftermath, the artistic depictions of Lincoln, the history of the theatre, or to measure themselves against him. How the museum might change, I have no idea. But it does need some spiffing –up!
Ford’s Theatre is Closed! (Nope! Stop the Presses! Ford's Theatre reopened June 30th for the summer due to the fact that construction was not able to start as planned. But the Christmas Carol is in doubt, and there will be no spring season American musical in 2008.)
When Ford's Theatre does close, this posting might be the only place to see the lining of the coat Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated. It had been made for his second inaugural and worn by him during that ceremony. The lining was quilted to keep him warm. The message was a tribute to a man who was trying to keep the Union intact. This message reflected the affection and esteem of those who tailored the coat; the workmanship, though subtle and planned to be hidden, is breathtaking!
For several years, I had my students look closely at the lining detail of the quilted coat and read ‘the secret message’. This was a particularly fascinating exhibit to them as it also displayed the Derringer and knife used by John Wilkes Booth; the door with the small hole bored into it, that separated the balcony from the small space before one could enter the box; and the piece of wood that Booth would eventually wedge into the door to making it impossible to open by the rescuers from the audience side.
When the surgeon finally entered the box to examine the President, he initially thought that Lincoln had been shot in the back and cut through the coat lengthwise, only to discover that the President had been shot in the head.
My loyal readers already know the contents of the President’s pockets the explanation and rock song, The items in his pockets were bequeathed to the Library of Congress. There are other assassination relics and modern science is being used to investigate these. The Chicago Historical Society Northwestern University has a fascinating site concerning all the events and relics of the assassination, it is called Wet With Blood! www.chicagohs.org/wetwithblood/ (It's not allowing me to copy the link/address.)
But this post is not about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; it is about the tailors of the coat, Brooks Brothers.
My Love Affair With Brooks Brothers:
Having been raised in New York City, I was well aware of the venerable, and somewhat stuffy reputation of Brooks Brothers. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit probably had it tailored at Brooks Brothers. Scions of industry, power brokers, those in the Social Register, and Presidents have routinely had their clothes made by Brooks Brothers since 1818. It is our Savile Row.
When I first started my business career at the tender age of seventeen, it was the early ‘70’s and psychedelic polyester fabrics were in. My mother indicated that this was unacceptable for the workplace and if I wanted to succeed I should head over to Brooks Brothers to buy a suit, blazer, blouses, shirts, shoes, and several silk Foulard power ties. (It was on the cusp of dress-for-success which de-feminized women in order to fit into the men’s business world, so the pearls and pearl earrings were importan1 accessories for me, as well as lipstick.)
But I soon realized that the clothes, though conservative, were well-made, always in good taste, and lasted through the vagaries of fashion. A Brooks Brothers customer is normally one of wealth who views conspicuous consumption as being vulgar. Their clothes are innocuous and make the statement that one prefers quality over trendiness. A khaki skirt and an oxford cloth blouse are always serviceable, especially with a ribbon belt. There was a sense of personal stability; that one was not a slave to fashion; but that in a way, it is its own fashion statement. And similar to the Hat and Pearls (which were required accessories), I could be received anywhere.
It’s a simple way to dress. It's classic.
As I remember, the salespeople at Brooks Brothers had always been exceedingly helpful and gracious, especially to a seventeen-year-old during her first solo shopping experience with hard-earned money. Being a salesperson at Brooks Brothers was a respected profession. They were ladies and gentleman with a refined sense of taste. They came from all walks of life. In fact, in the early 1980’s, two of the Brooks Brothers in Washington, DC could boast members of the Afghan royal family who had been displaced by the Soviet invasion of their country. (My friend, a loyal Brooks Brothers customer, who was on TDY at Headquarters Marine Corps, actually invited one of the brothers and his wife to dinner! I was to act as hostess. Mr. Suleiman’s patrician wife was charming, but spoke no English, so I tried my French (which she spoke fluently) and became ashamed of my poor ability to communicate.)
On my tours, I point out sites that may not constitute a monument, memorial, or a museum, but nevertheless played a part in American history. My students love shopping, and I think that the stories of great American stores such as Macy's and Brooks Brothers should be a part of their education. (We can add others such as Sears and the belated Woolworth's to that list.) Fashion and merchandising is part of the cultural and economic heritage of this nation. The Lincoln coat is just one example of a connection one can make through these discoveries. Perhaps I'll be responsible for creating new customers!
As you can tell, Brooks Brothers has a place of affection in my life and it was great sadness that I stood at the cauldron of what was the World Trade Center and realized that their Wall Street store at One Liberty Plaza (across the street) had also been damaged. Could it survive this calamity?
A Short History of Brooks Brothers:
The Story of Brooks Brothers started in 1818, when Henry Sands Brooks opened a haberdashery near South Street Seaport, a bustling area which would attract merchants, seaman, investors, and wealthy landowners. Brooks’ four sons eventually took over the store which had prospered enough to move several times throughout their tenure to keep the store in the most fashionable and profitable districts.
The longevity of Brooks Brothers salesmen is indeed legendary; Frank Webb attended to five generations of Morgans, starting with their progenitor, J.P.! Mr. Webb remained with the firm for sixty-five years! Many employees stayed for over 50 years!
The statistics below came from the Brooks Brother website and full explanations of the fashion innovations are explained there.
At his second inauguration, Abraham Lincoln wore a magnificent coat specially crafted for him by Brooks Brothers. Hand stitched into the coat's lining was an intricate design featuring an eagle and the inscription, "One Country, One Destiny." Sadly, it was also the coat Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated at Ford's Theater.
Ulysses S. Grant began his association with Brooks Brothers during the Civil War, when he ordered tailored uniforms for the Union officers.
Theodore Roosevelt wore a Brooks Brothers military uniform in his famous march up San Juan Hill.
Herbert Hoover preferred Brooks Brothers henley undershirts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was frequently seen in a great cape specially made by Brooks Brothers for the U.S. Navy.
John F. Kennedy popularized Brooks Brothers' fashionable two-button suit when he wore it at his inauguration. Two-button Brooks suits were also favored by Gerald Ford and George Bush.
No pun intended, but Richard Nixon was an admirer of the "Brooksgate" clothing collection, a special tailored line designed for the young executive.
Bill Clinton has been seen sporting Brooks Brothers casual wear, including a leather bomber jacket he wore the day following his election as President in 1992.
Generations of Astors, Goulds, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers have shopped at Brooks Brothers.
After completing his first expedition to the South Pole, Admiral Richard E. Byrd wired Brooks to make him the appropriate dress uniforms to be ready for his first public appearance.
When aviator Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris without luggage after his historic trans-Atlantic flight, Ambassador Myron T. Herrick loaned him a Brooks Brothers suit. Upon his return to the United States, Lindbergh was welcomed to New York by the greatest ticker-tape parade in the city's history. The custom clothing department at Brooks Brothers worked all night making the suit which Lindbergh wore that day.
Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, Rudy Vallee and John Barrymore were some of the best-dressed men of their time, and all were Brooks Brothers customers.
Fred Astaire was fond of wearing Brooks Repp neckties as belts.
The Duke of Windsor, one of history's most famous dandies, preferred Brooks Brothers dressing gowns.
Clark Gable, splendidly proportioned with a 44-inch chest and 32-inch waist, had his suits made to order at Brooks Brothers. He was generally unable to wear ready-made clothing, except for Brooks Brothers button-down Polo collar shirts.
Boxer Jack Dempsey's slender feet required fine cordovan leather Peal shoes.
Jack Kerouac, the counter-culture icon of the "beat" generation, favored the comfort of Brooks Brothers' button-down Polo collar oxford shirts.
Katherine Hepburn, one of the first Hollywood starlets to don trousers, headed to Brooks Brothers for her tailoring.
Fran Liebowitz has demonstrated an affinity for Brooks Brothers Shetland sweaters and button-down Polo collar shirts.
Designer Todd Oldham favors Brooks Brothers white button-down Polo collar shirts, while Vogue has reported that Brooks Brothers is designer Mark Jacobs' favorite store.
Matthew Broderick and Chris O'Donnell are fans and favor classics like Brooks cashmere sweaters.
Michael J. Fox, Heather Locklear and the cast of Spin City headed to Brooks' Fifth Avenue store to celebrate their 1999 season premiere.
Queen Latifah and 25 other hip hop artists wear Brooks Brothers suits on her new album, The Takeover.
Sir Paul McCartney frequently stops by the Fifth Avenue store to do some shopping.
Other recent celebrity sightings include James Gandolfini, Jon Voight, Barry Bostwick, Greg Kinnear, Molly Ringwald, Kevin Bacon, and Scott Wolf.
Brooks Brothers is frequently sought out by costume designers and worn by celebrities in major films, including Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Will Smith in Ali.
Brooks Brothers is the official clothier of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with artistic director Wynton Marsalis. The orchestra tours the United States wearing Brooks Brothers three-button suits paired with colorful shirts and repp stripe ties.
Here is a list of Brooks Brothers fashion innovations:*
1845 Ready-Made Suits
1865 Abraham Lincoln's Legendary Coat
1890 The Silk Foulard Necktie
1895 The Sack Suit
1896 The Button-Down Polo Collar Shirt
1904 The Shetland Sweater
1910 The Polo Coat
1920 The Repp Tie
1930 Light-Weight Summer Suits
1930 Three-Button Suits
1938 Colored Shetland Sweaters
1949 The Pink Shirt For Women (Think Pink!)
1949 Argyle Socks
1950 The Brooks Boxer (!)
1953 Wash & Wear
1961 The Two-Button Suit
1963 Brooks Brothers Toiletries
1963 BrooksEase, The Ultimate Travel Suit
1968 150 Years And The No. Three Suit
1980 Preppy Style Revival
1992 The Wardrobe Collection
1994 Soft Classics
1995 The BrooksEase Wardrobe Collection
1998 The Brooks Jazz CD Collection (!)
1998 BrooksEase Shirt
2001 Digital Tailoring
Did I forget to mention that Thom Browne worked for Ralph Lauren, who started out at Brooks Brothers and made the term 'Polo' famous?
As you can see, Brooks Brothers, although perceived to be conservative, has also been an innovator in merchandising and American fashion. While I was appalled that Brooks Brothers started to sell designer jeans, I realized that one must go with the times. However, I am not very impressed with their current line, Black Fleece that seems to make men look like Peewee Herman. (Please see fashion show on Black Fleece link.)
On September 11, 2002 Brooks Brothers quietly reopened their One Liberty Place store. There was a sense of continuity, stability, and renewal.
I was there.
Much of the information for this article was gleaned from three articles on Brooks Brothers, they seemed to be the best of the many resources I consulted:
For more information on Brooks Brothers, please consult their website.
For information concerning the new plans for Ford’s Theatre or the assassination, please consult the National Park Service Website.