A Stain on an All-American Brand

How Brooks Brothers Once Clothed Slaves

TODAY BROOKS BROTHERS IS known to many as a somewhat staid, yet still ‘All-American’ heritage brand. Given its association with the East Coast establishment, it perhaps would surprise few that this year marks the bicentennial of its founding by Henry Sands Brooks. What has been heretofore unexamined (and unacknowledged by the firm) is its entanglement with another ‘all-American’ brand—the enslavement of African Americans. Brooks Brothers, like many other New York commercial institutions, supported and benefited from the institution of slavery.   

By 1818, the forty-six-year-old Henry Sands Brooks had already made his name as a grocer and noted dandy. Given his experience in retail and his love of fashion, it is no surprise that on April 7 of that year he opened a men’s clothing emporium, H. & D. H. Brooks & Co. The original location was on the corner of Catherine and Cherry Streets in the neighbourhood that is often described today as ‘Two Bridges.’ The name comes from the fact that the neighbourhood is nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Of course, in 1818, those bridges were not there; however, it was a bustling commercial district with a view of the East River.1 The store was also near Catherine Slip, a manmade inlet that allowed for loading and unloading of cargo. The store’s waterfront location was conducive to international and domestic trade. It is also crucial to understanding the company’s connection to slavery. 

The company itself has passed through many hands and many corporate structures.  On Brooks’ death, the business was inherited by his four sons (the eponymous ‘Brooks Brothers’); it stayed in the family until Winthrop Holly Brooks retired in 1946, after which it was sold a number of times. It is currently organised as Brooks Brothers Group Inc., which is privately owned by the Italian magnate Claudio del Vecchio.2

Brooks Brothers’ clientele has always been illustrious. Abraham Lincoln famously wore a Brooks Brothers frock coat (custom-made for his 6’4” frame) the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. On the day he was assassinated in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was wearing a white striped Brooks Brothers shirt. During the 2017 presidential inauguration, both President Trump and former-president Barack Obama wore Brooks Brothers coats during their greeting. In fact, Brooks Brothers has dressed forty of forty-five U.S. presidents since 1818.  

The label of a coat belonging to Dr. William Newton Mercer, and purchased from Brooks Brothers in New York. Given the size and style of the coat, it was most likely made for young male enslaved domestics. The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Brooks Brothers commemorated its bicentennial this April, hosting an Americana-themed, cocktail-fuelled fête at Jazz at Lincoln Center with performances by Wynton Marsalis and Paul Simon.3 There was much to celebrate. Today, Brooks Brothers has ‘more than two-hundred-and-fifty retail and factory stores in the United States, shops in airports and more than two-hundred-and-fifty locations internationally.’4 Though Brooks Brothers has been subject to the volatility of the retail landscape, the company has maintained its profitability under the helm of del Vecchio.5 But gone unmentioned is that this storied clothier, like most American companies and institutions that date back to the nineteenth century and earlier, is entangled in the complicated history of enslavement in the United States. The leadership at Brooks Brothers has yet to publicly acknowledge its connection to slavery. (My repeated requests to examine Brooks Brothers’ archives have been met with unresponsiveness.) Most generously one could speculate that this is due to ignorance of their own brand history. However, it could also be that there is a fear of hurting their bottom line.

Nonetheless, evidence shows that the national reach and different product lines of Brooks Brothers necessarily resulted in the company profiting from the slave economy. This evidence includes the structure of Brooks Brothers’ business, still-existing examples of Brooks Brothers-supplied clothing, and Brooks Brothers appeals to southern clients to pay outstanding bills.

Brooks Brothers profited from ‘servant’ clothing as well as the clothing designed for their masters. Brooks Brothers had a livery department, which provided garments for coachmen, footmen, chauffeurs, etc. in wealthy households, including those south of the Mason-Dixon Line.6 Before 1865, most of these servants were presumably enslaved. As symbols of their prosperity, moneyed slaveholders often outfitted their enslaved domestics in fine clothing as a display of their wealth. For example, Thomas Jefferson meticulously recorded the clothing distributed to each member of the enslaved community at Monticello, noting the quality and quantity of materials beside the name of each slave. Their clothing was a visual indicator of their age, gender and status. Curiously, it was not Jefferson’s concubine Sally Hemings who received the best allotment of clothing, but his manservant Jupiter.7 

Misconceptions about enslaved people’s wardrobes may have prevented consideration of how northern commercial interests such as Brooks Brothers were necessarily linked to the day-to-day lives of commodified people of African descent. Though enslaved people’s clothing tended to be drab, shapeless and limited to a few pieces, there were opportunities to acquire more elaborate wardrobes. Enslaved peoples bought clothing and accessories with the small amounts of money from doing extra work for their slaveowners and others, raising vegetables and poultry, hunting, fishing and artisanal work. Enslaved people also bought, sold and bartered garments in the secondhand clothing market. Others were offered hand-me-downs from other slaves and their owners. Slaves most often received lengths of fabrics with which they were responsible for creating their own clothing.

The trade Brooks Brothers engaged in was separate from and parallel to the localised market described above. Brooks Brothers responded to the need of slave masters to adorn their human ‘property.’ In the wealthiest households, enslaved peoples were dressed in garments that ostentatiously reflected the privilege of their owners. A case in point are two Brook Brothers coats that are currently held in the permanent collection of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Given the size and style of the coats, they were most likely made for young male enslaved domestics. The coats were used in the household of Dr. William Newton Mercer.

Mercer was born in Maryland, studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and served as a surgeon in the U.S. Army before setting up a private practice in Natchez, Mississippi. In Natchez, he married into a family of cotton planters. When both his father-in-law and wife died, he inherited many of the family’s properties and became extraordinarily wealthy. He eventually retired from plantation life and settled on the toney Canal Street in New Orleans. He even served as the president of the Bank of Louisiana. His obituary extols his virtues.

[The] excellent sense, firmness and consistency of character and thoughtful sagacity of Dr. Mercer rendered him a most successful administrator of a large estate. He not only preserved the estate inherited from his wife, who died not many years after their marriage, but quadrupled its value, and has continued to retain and enlarge it, so that his succession, despite the enormous losses of the war, is estimated at a million and a half of dollars.8 

Upon his death in 1874, Mercer had made his name as a real-estate investor and philanthropist and had become a fixture of New Orleans high society.9 Mercer owned hundreds of slaves who worked his many cotton plantations in Mississippi. He also owned slaves who cared for his palatial home on Canal Street. As reflections of his plantocratic wealth, these slaves were styled to represent his power and importance. The elegant Brooks Brothers coats were adorned with silver buttons that bear the falcon crest of the Mercer family, fitting the image of a wealthy planter, real estate mogul and philanthropist.10 

Slaves, like fashion and luxury goods, were commodities. Mercer treated his slaves as possessions the same way as finery in his home. Just as he provided his manservants with Brooks Brothers coats with buttons emblazoned with his family crest, the accoutrement of wealth in his home was also adorned with symbols of his dynastic prosperity. For example, the Historic New Orleans Collection holds one of Mercer’s silver trays that also features an engraved falcon and a capital ‘M’ below it.11 

The coats bring to light the symbiotic relationship between manufacturers and retailers in centres of commerce in the North and producers of raw materials and consumers in the South. Brooks Brothers was decidedly located in lower Manhattan, walking distance from ports linked to Southern entrepots. The company serviced residents of New York City as well as many clients in the American South (as the provenance of the coats reveals).

Brooks Brothers itself acknowledged its engagement in the slave economy in its attempts to get payments from its Southern ‘work employers’ (a euphemism for slave owners). In 1853, Brooks Brothers was among a group of businesses that published ‘The Tailor’s Appeal,’ a complaint about unpaid bills from Southern merchants. It reads:

Gentlemen: Whereas, a number of the ‘Southern’ work employers, refuse to give us a fair remuneration for our labor, and as it is utterly impossible, for us, working for them, to earn bread for ourselves and families, and as we wish you to fully understand who are the friends of the workingmen, we subjoin a list of employers who have signed a bill of prices, and earnestly call upon you to patronize only those employers who have acted so honorably…12 

The companies complained that Southern merchants employed their service, but they were not recompensed fairly or at all. Number twenty-nine on the list of employers is Brooks Brothers. Here Brooks Brothers publicly acknowledges that it included ‘Southern work employers’ among its customers. Given its lower Manhattan location within walking distance from ports linked to Southern entrepots, it would have been surprising if Brooks Brothers had not been deeply entangled in the American ‘peculiar institution’ even as it established itself as the go-to menswear emporium for Northern elites.  

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. In 2003, Brown University President Ruth Simmons appointed a steering committee to unearth the university’s connection to slavery and the slave trade. A group of Harvard’s faculty members and students launched the ongoing Harvard and Slavery project, which examine the history and legacy of slavery at Harvard.13 In 1838, Jesuit priests of Georgetown University sold two hundred and seventy two of its slaves to save the school from potential financial ruin. Georgetown is now offering preferential admissions to descendants of those slaves.

Though many universities have started atoning for their connection to slavery and the slave trade, Brooks Brothers, and other for-profit entities, have not. Many such entities have avoided scrutiny by ceasing to exist. Very few of the signatories on the ‘Tailors Appeal’ still exist. Those that do include Hewitt Lees & Company (now investment banking and brokerage firm Laidlaw & Company) and bank Brown Brothers (now Brown Brothers Harriman & Company). While many others American corporations and families have roots in American slavery, few have maintained a continuous brand identity over two centuries. Brooks Brothers has survived in part due to the glacial shifts in menswear trends that protect it from the vagaries of a mercurial fashion industry. Over the course of two centuries, Brooks Brothers has fashioned itself as an American institution, solidifying its status as the go-to purveyor of respectable suiting and preppy wear.

But it is reasonable to ask Brooks Brothers to acknowledge and reflect upon its roots in the trade with slaveowners. Its longevity is also due to the fact that its early profits came in part from selling clothing to slave masters. Brooks Brother is often credited for introducing ready-to-wear suiting to the clothing market in 1849. ‘The ready-made suit was a turning point for the garment industry and for the American population, making fine clothing more accessible to all,’ wrote the company recently in its online magazine.14 What has not been examined is how much this innovation might have been based on its outfitting of free and enslaved servants who did not have the time or luxury to be fitted for bespoke garments.

The success and longevity of Brooks Brothers is due, in part, to its connection to slavery and the profits it gained from selling clothing to planters in the South. In the end, by counting slaveholders among its clientele, Brooks Brothers directly benefited from the buying and selling of enslaved men, women and children. It is in its best interest to fully acknowledge its part—even if small—in propping up the institution of slavery, rather than remaining silent and sweeping it under the rug. The company, which is considered the epitome of preppy all-American style, is also a benefactor of slavery. But what is more American than slavery?

Dr. Jonathan Michael Square is a writer, historian and curator specializing in Afro-Diasporic fashion and visual culture. He holds a PhD in history from New York University and teaches at Harvard University. He also founded and runs the digital humanities project Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom.  

  1. E G Burrows and M Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 437. 

  2. E White, ‘Retail Brand Buys Brooks Brothers from Marks & Spencer for $225 Million,’ Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2001. del Vecchio, whose family owns Ray Ban and the Italian producer of eyeglasses Luxottica SpA, bought the company in 2001 for $225 million from Britain’s Marks & Spencer. 

  3. Z Weiss, ‘Brooks Brothers Rings In 200 Years with a Jazz-Filled Celebration,’ Vogue, April 26, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/brooks-brothers-200-birthday-celebration-yara-shahidi-katie-holmes-christina-hendricks 

  4. ‘Stores, Emails & Catalogs,’ Brooks Brothers, accessed June 20, 2018, https://www.brooksbrothers.com/Stores,-Emails-Catalogs/help-stores,default,pg.html 

  5. As a privately-owned entity, the figures on the company’s success can only be gleaned from what the company chooses to divulge. A recent New York Times article credits del Vecchio for posting ‘profits for thirteen of the last seventeen years.’ T Agins, ‘With a Glance Backward, Brooks Brothers Looks to the Future,’ The New York Times, April 21, 2018 

  6. Evidence of Brooks Brothers livery department include this sixteen-page livery catalog from 1900. ‘Brooks Brothers Livery Department,’ accessed on June 23, 2018, https://www.abebooks.com/Brooks-Brothers-Livery-Department/22684247331/bd 

  7. Farm Book, 1774-1824, page 41, by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003. Original manuscript from the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. 

  8. ‘William Newton Mercer,’ The Times-Picayune, August 18, 1874, 4. 

  9. Mercer makes a cameo in historian Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach, which explores the legal battle of the formerly enslaved woman Rose Herera when her former owners the De Hart family kidnapped her five children and fled to Havana during the Yankee occupation of New Orleans. It was the well-heeled Mercer who financed the purchase of Rose Herera and her children for his friend and dentist James Andrew De Hart. For a man of his wealth, the cost of this chattel was small price compared to his vast holdings. A Rothman, Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015, 48-68. 

  10. There was no Brooks Brothers store in New Orleans in the nineteenth century, but Mercer was well travelled and may have purchased the coats during one of his trips up north. These coats were acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection after they were discovered by descendants of the Mercer family in an attic of a former plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. 

  11. Classical Institute of the South and The Historic New Orleans Collection, silver tray, CIS-2011-0175, http://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/hnoc-p16313coll17%3A7342 

  12. P S Foner, Business & Slavery: The New York Merchants & the Irrepressible Conflict, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1941, 1-2; New-York Tribune, August 19, 1853. 

  13. See http://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice and https://www.harvard.edu/slavery 

  14. The company claims that it began creating ready-to-wear suits for pioneers headed West towards the California gold rush. “A Ready-to-Wear Revolution,” Brooks Brothers, accessed July 8, 2018. http://magazine.brooksbrothers.com/ready-to-wear/