Who Were the Actual Brooks Brothers?
Brooks Brothers has been a mainstay of American formal wear for more than 200 years. The company’s suits have been worn by 40 U.S. presidents. They have supplied uniforms to the American armed forces and suits to regular people for their most important life events: going to the prom, attending their first job interview, getting married.
But in July 2020, the firm filed for bankruptcy, likely a victim of the working-from-home trend and the move towards more casual clothing. The Brooks Brothers’s name has been woven into the fabric of American fashion, yet a certain mystery surrounds the people behind the business. Who were the original Brooks Brothers, anyway?
The firm that would go on to be known as Brooks Brothers was established on April 7, 1818, by 45-year-old Henry Sands Brooks and his younger brother, David, as H & D. H. Brooks and Co. Before setting up the store, Henry Sands Brooks had been a provisioner for traders and seafarers, and likely did brisk business in New York City’s seaport. Their shop was situated on the corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Lower Manhattan, a major shopping district that supported a number of clothing stores. It was said Brooks was something of a dandy with an eye for fashion.
Henry Sands Brooks died in 1833, and the store passed to his eldest son, Henry Jr. When he died in 1850, Brooks Sr.’s four younger sons Daniel, John, Elisha, and Edward inherited the firm and renamed it Brooks Brothers. At this point, the store began to stand out from the crowd. The brothers adopted their familiar logo of a sheep suspended by a ribbon representing the Golden Fleece. This ancient symbol hearkened back to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and was used by tailors and wool merchants across Europe as a sign of quality. By embracing this symbol, the brothers were announcing the caliber of their goods and aligning themselves with the prestige of European fashion.
While building a brand on traditional quality, the brothers also saw an opportunity to modernize. Brooks Brothers began specializing in ready-to-wear suits—an innovation that made “gentlemen’s clothing” accessible and affordable to ordinary Americans. An advertisement in New York’s Evening Post in June 1850 stated that Brooks Brothers ‘have on hand a large stock of ready-made clothing, suited to the tastes and wants of purchasers.’ Brooks Brothers also capitalized on the California Gold Rush by selling their ready-made suits to gold-seekers who didn’t have time to wait for a tailor to construct bespoke suits.
Business boomed in the years leading up to the Civil War, a time when the company benefited from slavery. Much of the cotton used by Brooks Brothers was picked by enslaved laborers in the South. The company also manufactured the types of uniforms worn by enslaved people forced to work as house servants.
Perhaps as a result of their experience making such clothing, Brooks Brothers was given a large contract by the Union government at the start of the Civil War to provide tens of thousands of uniforms for enlisted soldiers. A scandal blew up when the garments were delivered: it was obvious that the uniforms were of low quality, missing buttons or buttonholes, and made from cheap scraps of cloth glued instead of sewn together. When the outfits were exposed to wind and rain, they fell apart. In the rush to manufacture them for the war effort, Brooks Brothers had, in fact, substituted cheap and flimsy material instead of the usual grade of cloth—they were allowed to, according to the provisions written into their contract.
The New York state legislature launched an investigation, accusing the company of profiteering. When asked how much money the company had made by downgrading the cloth, Elisha Brooks prevaricated. “I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose,” Brooks told lawmakers. Ultimately, Brooks Brothers agreed to replace 2350 of the substandard uniforms at a cost of $45,000.
The company’s association with outfitting the Union Army got them into trouble again in July 1863. The casualties among members of New York regiments were increasing as the war showed no signs of resolution. In New York City, working class people protested against the draft, and the protests quickly turned into a riot of racist violence and looting. Brooks Brothers’s Cherry Street store was one of the establishments it targeted. Harper’s Weekly reported that “a large number of marauders paid a visit to the extensive clothing-store of Messrs. Brooks Brothers … there they helped themselves to such articles as they wanted, after which they might be seen dispersing in all directions, laden with their ill-gotten booty.”
Brooks Brothers’s reputation didn’t suffer for long, however. At his second presidential inauguration in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln wore a greatcoat made by the company. It featured an eagle embroidered into its lining with the motto “One Country, One Destiny.” Lincoln was wearing the same coat when, just two weeks later, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. After his death, Mary Todd Lincoln gave the coat to Alphonse Donn, a doorman at the White House, who kept it for the rest of his life. Donn’s family eventually sold the coat to the United States Capitol Historical Society, and it is now in the Ford’s Theatre museum's collection.
Brooks Brothers continued to grow and expand. The company introduced enduring fashions such as the button-down polo shirt in 1896, the sack suit in 1901, and their own version of a British regimental tie, the striped rep tie, in 1902.
For more than 200 years, the company has outfitted presidents, Wall Street traders, and businesspeople, becoming an iconic American brand with worldwide appeal. But today, their future may be less certain.