I was in the city running a few errands and having a little fun yesterday, buying a chambray shirt, renewing my library card at NYPL, and taking in the Brooks Brothers exhibit on display through September 5 in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. Brooks Brothers began in 1818 on the more southern portion of Manhattan, where most New Yorkers still lived and worked. Grand Central opened in 1913 and Brooks Brothers opened its now-flagship store across the street at 346 Madison in 1915 to serve the commuting businessmen. It was fortunate for the Great War effort the the spacious train terminal was built when and where it was, accommodating as it did the mass influx of men and material on their way to France.
Taking in the Brooks Brothers exhibit was a journey in time and made me a little rueful at how far the once iconic temple of men’s style has fallen. Really it is not all Brooks’s fault; societal changes, many of them for the better, have rendered much of traditional men’s styling obsolete. That said, when they put me in charge of the world, jackets and repp ties will again be required for all men. There were many striking and iconic things to see but two that struck me the most were these. The first is a letter to Brooks Brothers from New York State Assistant Quartermaster Chester Alan Arthur requisitioning 300 overcoats. The letter is from October 24, 1861, three days after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
The second is a contract signed by Governor Edwin D. Morgan two month and a half months earlier. It is a mark of the great import of the transaction that all four actual Brooks brothers signed the document. This came at an important time in the war effort, just two after the fiasco at Bull Run. I write about this moment in the manuscript of Incorporating New York. By early August men like Morgan and Arthur were cleaning up the mess and preparing for what everyone now knew would be a long war. I know the images are not that great, having been taken through the glass in the display case, but note the red wax next to each signature marking it official. Governor Morgan’s is on top and then the four brother’s below. I don’t know for certain but my guess would be that the fabric swabs were included in the contract after earlier incidents of clothiers–including Brooks Brothers–providing the Army with inferior shoddy goods.