THE END OF AN ERA: Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and other emblems of upper-class America are going bankrupt because of the new uprising

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  • Part of the reason traditional retailers such as Brooks Brothers and J. Crew have both gone bankrupt this year has to do with what they symbolise – an America that’s fading away.
  • During the French Revolution, the royal court of Versailles wore lavish clothing that clearly marked them as the aristocracy, just as Brooks Brothers suits and J. Crew cardigans now signify a traditional upper-class white America.
  • From breeches to Brooks, the “sans-culottes” defied the aristocratic fashions of the 18th century, and today protesters rock graphic T’s emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.”
  • In the revolutionary period, notions of equality were considered radical. How much has changed?
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It was only a matter of time before the United States took Brooks Brothers to the guillotine.

The retailer, the nation’s oldest, was not just a purveyor of Wall Street fashion but an emblem of upper-class America and its all-white blue-blood glory.

Last month it went bankrupt.

But it isn’t the only business-casual retailer that’s gone to the chopping block this year – J. Crew, Men’s Wearhouse, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus have also filed for bankruptcy.

There was once a time, two decades ago, when hundreds of protesters – including Trump associate Roger Stone, clad almost entirely in Brooks Brothers – descended on South Florida to protest the recount of a virtually tied presidential election. It was a revolutionary moment in American politics as the protest escalated into a historic Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, ensuring that every vote would not be counted before the presidency was decided. It came to be called “the Brooks Brothers riot,” a name coined by a George W. Bush campaign aide.

McCloskey family
Armed homeowners Mark T. and Patricia N. McCloskey stand in front of their house along Portland Place as they confront protesters marching to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s house Sunday, June 28, 2020, in the Central West End of St. Louis. St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Contributor / Getty Images

Flash forward to the long hot summer of 2020, and protesters are in the streets again, but it’s hard to find any of them wearing anything like Brooks Brothers. In fact, the brand made a notable appearance in the form of anti-protesters: a certain married couple of lawyers from St. Louis, who brandished guns as protesters marched (peacefully) past them to the mayor’s house.

Black Lives Matter
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP stands on the grid wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt before the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on August 02, 2020 in Northampton, England Dan Istitene – Formula 1 / Contributor / Getty Images

As Cintra Wilson of Town & Country wrote, Brooks Brothers had become a symbol of “what not to wear to the revolution.”

Fashion was also a dividing line during the French Revolution of just over two centuries ago, as the lower-class commoners of the late 18th century separated themselves from the waistcoat-and-breeches-wearing aristocrats of the day by rocking homemade ankle-length trousers. They came to be called the sans-culottes, or “without breeches.”

Retail has struggled as a sector for a while with massive disruption from e-commerce and more recently from the casual practical requirements of the work-from-home era. But the decline of the traditional American fashion style perhaps also shows how long class tensions have been simmering.

The aristocracy and upper class have always set themselves apart through fashion

This year of pandemic has recalled the French Revolution in other ways, as when Ivanka Trump posed with a Goya can, a “let them eat beans” moment reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s infamous, perhaps apocryphal, “let them eat cake” remark.

Aristocratic and upper-class fashion of the time was best modelled by Antoinette, with help from the stylist Rose Bertin, and it became synonymous with overindulgence and lavish display of wealth.

The women wore Watteau gowns with loose backs, robe à la française with low-cut necklines and large ribbon bows; heels had decorations, and hair was powdered and covered often with lace kerchiefs. As the History of European Fashion said, women would powder their hair with a wheat meal and flour, a fashion that came to be seen as outrageously wasteful to the lower classes as the cost of bread began to rise.

Marie antoinette
Marie Antoinette. UniversalImagesGroup / Contributor / Getty Images

Men wore decorative waistcoats, with breeches that stopped at the knee, along with white silk stockings and heeled shoes.

It was also the time when fashion magazines began to emerge, meaning those living on the streets of Paris were all too aware of what was being worn in the royal court of Versailles.

Marie antoinette
Antoine Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813) presenting a potato plant to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the gardens of Versailles, Illustration from French newspaper Le Petit Journal, March 10, 1901. Leemage / Contributor / Getty Images

Enter the sans-culottes, who believed in the idea, novel at the time, that all men are equal. They despised those who controlled large estates and enterprises at the expense of those around them, believed everyone should own at least one piece of property, wanted food taken from the large landowners and given to the small workshops, and wanted to tax the rich.

Marie antoinette
A sans-culotte. Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

Today’s sans-culottes have strikingly similar political beliefs, and instead of going breechless they’re going Brooks-less: largely masked up and wearing graphic T’s that say “Black Lives Matter.” Now we even have Instagram and Twitter to keep us abreast of the rich’s latest ramblings. We have notable democratic socialists advocating sans-culotte policies, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and opinion polls have shown that more and more Americans agree with them.

In the same way that the sans-culottes saw the style of the aristocracy as symbols of their oppression, our society may have come to view the tailored suit, polos, fitted shirts, khaki pants (both long and cropped), and sweaters tied neatly around the shoulders, as symbolic of an upper class that many believe to be causing so much modern-day oppression.

This revolution will also not be wrinkle-free

Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis lawyers who became infamous after wielding guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, did so while wearing, in some sense, a uniform: Patrica was wearing a striped shirt with leggings that ended – wait for it – at the knee. Mark wore a pink Brooks Brothers polo and khaki pants belted at the waist.

Meanwhile, as also noted by Town & Country, far-right figures such as Richard Spencer have not only adopted Nazi hairstyles of the 1930s but a wardrobe featuring, as The Washington Post put it, “three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold-coin cuff links, and $US5,000 Swiss watches.”

These fashions bring forth images of politicians and bankers, elite Ivy League institutions with billion-dollar endowments, and top-notch jobs at Goldman Sachs. Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times commented on J. Crew’s rise in the 1980s as a brand of “New England prepster style” linked to a type of aspirational leisure most have never enjoyed. It was the fashion of white America, the fashion of the ideal American, the fashion of power.

Melania Trump
Melania Trump wearing Ralph Lauren. Pool / Pool / Getty Images

The new American ideal that emerges from today’s revolutionary moment might have a uniform involving athleisure wear and sweaters that say “Eat the Rich.” The cries for change will be on Twitter and Instagram, and people will always, as they have, take to the streets.

They would do so against the backdrop of Melania Trump, probably wearing cashmere Ralph Lauren, revamping the White House’s Rose Garden, just as Marie Antoinette meticulously tended to her gardens at Versailles before the sans-culottes bore down on the palace.