I don’t want you to get the impression I’m the type of person who loves to casually drop terms from psychology and psychoanalysis to make himself seem smarter than he is (I am). So I’ll save you the little digression on the ‘narcissism of small differences’ I had planned for this letter. It would have been perfect, but I wasn’t going to write to you about oxfords for a while.
And I don’t want to start two letters in a row with glib uses of semi-technical terms.
But there are rumors floating around that Trump wore a Brooks Brothers’ overcoat to give his inaugural address, so it makes as much sense to talk about oxford shirts now as it does for me to let you know that I own (but haven’t read) the complete works of Sigmund Freud.
Are you confused yet? Good, because so am I. That Trump wore a Brooks Brothers’ overcoat means something. That the overcoat means something means something. And that Brooks Brothers means something, well, I’ll let you dig around online and find out for yourself just how deeply entrenched the decline of Brooks Brothers is in the collective online unconscious of menswear (sorry for mixing in a little Jung here).
Of all the articles of prelapsarian menswear, none has anything close to the pull and power of the OCBD. And the Brooks Brothers’ oxford is the OG, one of the few truly mythic pieces of clothing. People discuss collar rolls online with the same fervour that proto-renaissance scholars talk about a panel of Giotto. It is that serious.
I wear your oxfords almost exclusively. Don’t think I’m sucking up, because I’m not. I dream about Brooks Brothers’ oxfords. But finding them in thrift stores, where I do most of my serious shirt shopping, just doesn’t seem to happen. Yours always seem to be around. And more often than not you’ve got better patterns than Brooks does. And better colours. And yours have a pony on them, and for some weird reason, I like that more than I should.
They’re great shirts, but they aren’t great oxfords. And this is where I imagined talking about the narcissism of small differences and the details that make Brooks’ an iconic oxford and yours just a shirt. But I don’t feel like it. President Trump gets his Brooks Brothers’ overcoat and I just want to sit around the house in sweatpants thinking about intangibles; about decorum and propriety and clever ways to change the maxim about putting lipstick on a pig to have something to do with the golden fleece.
When you were starting out you worked at Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue. In an interview you gave to New York magazine in the ‘80s, you talked about how even in the ‘60s Brooks wasn’t what it once had been. About how you saw an opening in the market that they were missing and went for it. That was 50 years ago, and I can’t help but imagine that if you were that young visionary today, bemoaning the once-great impossibility of Edenic menswear, you would probably be more likely to launch a blog than a clothing label. But your description of a very specific type of shirt buyer might get more to the heart of the power of the shirt than I ever can:
“That was what I went after, what I love, which is a life-style. Men who had a lot of money would go into Brooks Brothers to buy shirts, and say, ‘Give me three white, three blue, and three pink,’ and they’d walk out. They’d do it every year, year in and out. They weren’t interested in what was the latest this or the latest that. I recognized a certain mentality and security about them.”
That confidence comes from a belief expressed in something as simple as buying a shirt: that the world will never change. We live in a complex world where stuffed shirts sell a simplified vision of how great things used to be to rouse righteous and hateful anger. Brooks Brothers is owned by an Italian billionaire. The billionaire President of the United States licensed his name to a low-rent line of clothing made in China and then made a stink and a campaign out of the fact that we had exported the meaning of the American dream to foreign sweatshops.
The world did change for those rich white men buying oxfords at Brooks Brothers with the certainty that it wouldn’t. It has changed again with this week’s inauguration. That symbol – be it a collar roll or an overcoat – reminds us of simpler times and continuity. The garment itself reminds us that nothing is ever simple and that nothing stays the same.