Brooks Brothers’ greatest suit

By Edward Achorn

Another American icon bit the dust this week. Brooks Brothers, the great men’s clothier founded in 1818, filed for bankruptcy.

Brooks Brothers, already facing pressures as a brick-and-mortar retailer, cited the stresses of COVID-19, which has been a nightmare for businesses all over America.

The company boasted of clothing 40 presidents. I touched on its most important suit in my new book, Every Drop of Blood.

Abraham Lincoln wore a beautiful new Brooks Brothers suit to his Second Inauguration on March 4, 1865. The 6-feet-4-inch president was wearing it when he called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

As I note in the book, the suit featured a waistcoat, trousers, and a long, black double-breasted frock coat made of wool said to be finer than cashmere.

In honor of the occasion, a Brooks Brothers seamstress named Agnes Breckenridge embroidered its black lining with an intricate design of an eagle, which clutched in its beak two streamers bearing words from Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster’s ringing defense of the Union in an 1837 speech: “One country, one destiny.”

National Park Service

That was certainly Lincoln’s view of the matter.

Lincoln, by the way, wore polished calfskin boots that were custom-made by the New York shoemaker Peter Kahler. During a trip to Washington, Kahler traced Lincoln’s feet onto long sheets of cardboard—a whopping size fourteen.

Lincoln had many important people waiting outside his White House office to see him every day.

Let this man come right in,” Lincoln scrawled on the business card Kahler sent into his office. That seemed to testify to his difficulties in finding footwear that fit properly.

The suit became famous for its role in another event. Six weeks after the inauguration, on the night of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln wore it to Ford’s Theatre to attend a performance of the hit comedy “Our American Cousin.” During the play, the famous actor John Wilkes Booth — another leading figure in my new book — crept up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Lincoln, who never regained consciousness, died the next morning.

The bloodstained coat wound up in the possession of Lincoln’s footman, Alphonse Donn, and was passed down to his descendants. In 1968, the family gave it to Ford’s Theatre, where it is carefully preserved. In 1990, Brooks Brothers funded a costly and painstaking restoration.

Ford’s Theatre

Lincoln’s funeral procession in 1865, incidentally, passed through New York City.

There, at the corner of Broadway and Grand Street, the procession went by the Brooks Brothers store. Its staff stood outside and saluted him.

Sadly, it is now our turn to salute the apparent passing of Brooks Brothers, after its two centuries of clothing the rich, famous — and great.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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