What lesson are we to take from this evidence of profiteering from human servitude in the foundational years of Brooks Brothers? This is a question that other American institutions are being asked recently. Perhaps due to their nature as loci of inquiry and self-reflection, many universities have been on the forefront of exploring their connections to slavery and atoning for the ways in which they profited from the labour and sale of enslaved peoples. Brooks Brothers, and other for-profit entities, have not.
Behind these images of ‘real’ people – building, plastering, carrying heavy weights, fixing things or more generally just getting their hands dirty – is a not-so-subtle invitation to eroticise the workers, their bodies, their performance of ‘real’ masculinity. The hashtag #realpeople implies a distance, both erotic and social: they are ‘real’ people, we are not; this is ‘real’ work, ours is not.