Dressing Down

When George H.W. Bush ran for the Republican Nomination for President in 1980, he was asked to respond to the charge that he was a “Brooks Brothers Republican.” He revealed that he was wearing a J Press suit, an even preppier brand.

While campaigning in New Hampshire last week, a voter asked Scott Walker, “Is that suit from Kohl’s?” “No”, he responded, “I think this is from Jos A. Bank.” After confirming the label, he said, “Yea, I got it in a three-for-one sale.”

Scott Walker and the Jos. A. Bank Republicans.

Scott Walker and the Jos. A. Bank Republicans.

The Brooks Brothers brand evokes an Older WASP America. Though pejorative, the term “Brooks Brothers Republican” signified someone of privilege and refinement. Regardless of whether it matches your own aesthetic tastes, one can’t deny that Brooks Brothers has developed its own style and culture. (The firm outfitted Abraham Lincoln and is credited with introducing, among other things, the button-down collar and seersucker suit to America.)

If Brooks Brothers can be used as symbol of the WASP and elite; Jos. A Bank can only be used to signify cheap dullness.

Until recently, Brooks Brothers was made in America, and its high-end lines still are. Jos. A Bank’s manufacturers most of its clothes, and certainly the “three-for-one” suits, in China or Mexico. There is no stark difference in style between Jos A. Bank and Brooks Brothers, besides the fact that the former employs inferior craftsmanship on inferior materials and often is looser in fit for its overweight clientele. Jos. A Bank is the brand for the mid-level corporate functionary who has to wear a suit but doesn’t care how it looks—the base of the modern GOP.

Though Walker dubbed himself thrifty for his three-for-one sale, the brand is perpetually discounted and, in fact, is currently facing (an admittedly dubious) class-action lawsuit over these “sales.”

These two exchanges are indicative of many of the differences between the Republican Party of George H.W. Bush and that of Scott Walker. Bush came from an elite WASP family. He made his Brooks Brother quip at his alma mater, Yale, where he was a Bonseman. Walker, in contrast, is an evangelical from a middle-class background. He dropped out of a middle-tier Jesuit college.

So perhaps it is proper that Walker wear Jos. A Bank. The Republican Party is no longer the Party of WASP patricians; so why should they dress like them?

Prescott Bush (center) and his sons; George H.W. Bush (far right)

Prescott Bush (center) and his sons; George H.W. Bush (far right)

In fact, to a large degree, the American Right was born in protest against the East Coast WASP establishment. Walker’s fellow Wisconsinite Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade rallied ethnic Catholics and mid-western populists against Ivy League professors and the State Department, at a time when WASPs still dominated both. As historian John Moser noted,

Those who rallied behind Joe McCarthy's crusade were largely lower middle class, and more often than not of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European descent. They resented the fact that American politics and society were dominated by upper class WASPs who seemed too eager to make accommodations with communism.

Barry Goldwater famously quipped that America would be better off it “sawed off the Eastern Seaboard.”

Despite this sentiment, there has always been a certain WASP fetish among conservatives, regardless of their ethnic or economic background, and regardless of whether they are quite aware of what they are imitating. I’ve often mocked the prototypical pasty-skinned conservative operative, wearing a blue blazer and striped tie, smoking cigars and drinking scotch, while making 30,000 dollars a year at some worthless conservative think-tank that fleeces little old ladies out of their Social Security in the name of some pet cause. The sooner the Right loses the illusion of being in charge of America, the better.

A short digression: Jews have long dominated the preppy clothing industry. J Press, which stood for Jacobi Press, was founded by Jews. The same is true of many other preppy brands like Ralph Lauren (Ralph Lifshitz), Ben Silver, and Tory Burch (whose mother’s maiden name was Schapira). This likely reflected assimilationist aspirations among some Jews, rather than a culture of critique, but it’s worth pointing out.

Despite the sometimes Jewish surname, Tablet Mag noted that Brooks Brothers is “the one brand commonly associated with the Ivy look not founded or owned by Jews.” And the brand does not promote its own WASP culture politically beyond its tendency to embrace dispossession. In 2013, it hosted a series of “American Dream” videos, featuring Brooks Brothers clad “Americans” describing their dreams. A White man says, “My dream is to see my kids become citizens of the world.” In contrast, a Black women saying she wishes “All young girls to live in world with no limitations.” Most notably, an Indian Family dressed in over-the-top preppy clothes says she wants to be “the first woman president.”

Brooks Brothers also represents how WASP manners lead to ethnic self-flagellation. For years, it has published the book As a Gentleman Would Say, which gives advice on such questions about what to say when you see that a friend’s fly is open or if you don’t like the food at a dinner party.

The most recent edition includes a more important etiquette advice: what to say when “when a gentleman learns that he has inadvertently made a remark that has been interpreted to be sexist, racist, or ethnically offensive.” How does a refined gentleman act?

He takes steps to set the situation right. He does not attempt to excuse his behavior by saying, "You didn't understand the context." Neither does he seek to defend it, saying, "Well, if you were weren't so thin-skinned." Instead a gentleman addresses the situation calmly, but head on. He states clearly that he understands that his friend or acquaintance was insulted or angered by his remark—or by his actions. Even if he is convinced of his own innocence, he states, as directly as possible, that he is sorry to have given offense and assures his friend or acquaintance, that this experience has taught him to think even more carefully before he speaks. (The simple fact that he deems himself to be innocent does not change the fact that his friend has taken offense.) In the future, a gentleman attempts to remember the lesson he has learned.

To say the least, these are not the manners we need.

To some extent, Walker’s campaigning on his cheap suits is an understanding that his base is no longer filled with Brooks Brothers clad preppies. Yet it also embodies the mediocrity of American politics in general and the Right in particular.

Mitt Romney, who wore Brooks Brothers for his presidential appearances in 2012, looked like a president. For all his flaws, George H.W. Bush did, too. Between signing the 1991 Civil Rights Act and 1990 Immigration Act, the elder Bush did nothing to preserve the historical nature of the country he ran, yet he was and dressed as part of his class.

WASPs losing control of the country, even to other white gentiles, does nothing to right the wrongs of the old elite. One only need look at H.W.’s two political sons, Jeb and George W. They abandoned their parents Episcopalianism from Hispanic Catholicism and bumpkin evangelicalism, and are both worse on racial issues than their father. So perhaps it is for best that the White Republicans stop wearing Brooks Brothers or J Press. As America continues its descent into a Third World country, its elite should drop any facade that the people who built this country still run it.