Before Clothes were Disposable

When I was sixteen years old it was expected that if I wanted gas in my car, that I get a summer job. My mom suggested that I call the local department store. A whole bunch of people there were like family- a good bit of them were her family. After a week of behind the scenes training on store policies and little things like how the cash register worked, my six-foot-one; one-hundred and thirty-five pound self put on a pair of khaki slacks, oxford cloth shirt, rep tie, navy blazer, and loafers and stood on the floor of the mens suit department working the dead shifts when no-one shopped for about five dollars an hour plus commission (that you could go “in the hole” on, which I did). I folded a hell of a lot of shirts, I inventoried the whole section, and I stood around a bunch. The crew there was venerable. Wayne and Bobby and Don were the guys that customers asked for if they were coming to buy something in the mens department. They kept black books and called their best clients when the new stuff came in. Usually one of these gentlemen was there with me. I never was able to fill the tank in my truck, but I learned a hell of a lot about menswear. 

These were the last days of the suit and the tie. The store was pretty unique for our little town. About a hundred years prior, the department store chain started off as a little mercantile. Its history, and my family’s history in it- was younger cousins working there for older cousins. Sweeping the floor to selling shoes to eventually being invited to manage a satellite store in a nearby town. It was a family business that grew throughout the South through world wars and beyond. My maternal great grandfather was one of those cousins that ran a store in a town. That’s how that side of my family got its roots there in my hometown. My grandfather worked there with his younger brother and sister. He was one heck of a buyer. The folks in Charlotte always had an eye on the store. Our town was a simple Southern city, but people still dressed well back then and there was always always a top brand, the very icons of style, being stocked- a little bit before their time in the regional market. Back then every store had it’s own buyers. That changed when I went off to college. The hometown store seemed to be tiered into more of a workingman’s inventory once the buying became centralized. A few years ago the department store chain sold its assets- they did well.

One thing Old Bobby taught me was how to mark a suit for alterations. Everything in the men’s department there was “off-the-rack”, but you could buy a Hart Schaffner Marx suit in that store and have it fully deconstructed and put back together as if it was made to measure- for no additional charge. People knew this and appreciated it. I would slide behind the curtain to the alterations room and be fascinated. In a day when I celebrate haberdashery, the art was essentially being practiced right there by a bunch of sweet old ladies. I never sold a nice suit that summer. I spend every dime I earned in the Polo section of the men’s casual store forty feet away from the place I stood amongst suits and organized racks and dress shirts and pants. I learned that (my) proper break on men’s trousers was one half inch from the the heel and flush to the tongue of a pair of dress shoes. You should never buy a suit that doesn’t have the textile symmetrically booked at the midline. There are times to wear button downs and there are lots of different collar shapes. Tommy Hilfiger personally gave me three ties. The next summer I asked to work on the maintenance crew. The next summer I was a material handler in the off site marking room, where all the merchandise came in, was unboxed, ironed, and received price tags before going off to the store racks. There were hookers that hung out beyond its barbed wire fence. That was the last summer I worked for the store. I didn’t exactly cement my future in the family business of retail.

To the best of my knowledge there wasn’t a finer men’s shop. The notion of made to measure did not exist to me. If it could not be bought when it was priced 50% off there was not much reason to buy it. Most of my community concurred. There were some very well dressed men in my town. Until the days of the suit and the tie died. The store kept growing. Every year was a better year than the last. Then they sold it- just in the nick of time.

The impression of my youth and maybe a little genetic memory has always made me a bit interested in traditional mens clothing. I have always been a little weary of the national mall shops. There was just something about knowing that you might be wearing the same exact outfit as someone a thousand miles away that just bothered me. There was always something about the disposable nature of chain clothing that bothered me. And nothing bothers me more than clothes that don’t fit quite right. In college, I bought a few things from Alexander Julian’s store in Chapel Hill. I liked to go into Ben Silver when I visited Charleston. I could never shop carte blanche, but I did the best I could to buy things that were durable, timeless, and fit really well. Thank goodness I’ve been the same size for the past twenty-five years. Today, my profession rarely expects me to wear a tie. There’s church- that doesn’t fully expect me to wear a tie. There are social events- when maybe half the people attending dress in accordance with etiquette. Today, I really enjoy being measured by my personal clothier and having stuff tailored. I’m always looking for a place to wear. My wife and I have some snazzy dates. 

This writing is, I guess, inspired by all the banter this week about Brooks Brothers’ bankruptcy. I aside from a yearly subscription to Clark chinos, didn’t shop regularly at Brooks Brothers. I picked up few shirts- a few suits- a few ties there, but their khakis were my staple. None-the-less, their history was something I was aware of. Iconic status. I love the story about Andy Warhol filling his closet with white oxford button downs because he believed it was the perfect shirt. My grandfather was reputed as being one of the best dressed men you ever met. He died months before I was born. Despite the fact that he could have and should have bought most of his clothing from his store, he brought back clothes from New York buying trips. I have some old Brooks Brothers shirts. One of my favorite shirts is one of his vintage Abercrombie flannels. Abercrombie and Fitch when it was a great outfitter and before it became a frat boy mall store. I have an old Haspel suit from New Orleans and lots of other good stuff that needless-to-say lasted for generations. Too bad I am a two sizes bigger than him, so they are not worn. They are kept in remembrance of a better time. 

I’ve seen a whole bunch of “how to fix Brooks Brothers” suggestions out there. Can you make Frankenstein a man again? What I do observe and enjoy is a growing industry of makers that care. It might be impossible to turn something that grew into a corporate monster and real estate holding back to its roots, but there are little modern Brooks Brothers popping up. In a time when quality must be sought out, they are thriving. Little shops and brands with great, timeless style and relationships. I kind of like the notion of being drawn to a niche. My ambition is to shop small, seek quality, and support local folks with great products whether it’s where I live or a treat to myself on my travels. AND BY ALL MEANS, find trousers that cover my ankles!

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