The Eagle Clothes sign. You see it from the train as you ride over the viaduct. You catch a glimpse walking on 4th Avenue, in between the condo towers that rise to block the view. Dark at night, still bright in sunlight, brilliant red and green. Maybe, like me, you wonder what Eagle was all about and if their sign will stay.
ForgottenNY explains, "Eagle is one of the many haberdasheries that succumbed to more casual living during the Swingin' Sixties. As more men began to eschew suits, jackets and ties during all but strict business hours, clothing manufacturers had to adapt or die."
Eagle began to languish when the leisure suit, "the kiss of death," came on the scene, according to a former employee interviewed by New York Magazine. For him, the Gowanus sign is "like a tombstone. The end of the world I knew." And what a beautiful world it was:
1940s Eagle ads from goantiques
Eagle had been around for awhile when the Gowanus plant opened in June of 1951. On opening day, Mayor Impellitteri cut the tape and recalled his Sicilian mother's toil with sweatshop work, while Rose Schneidermann, Triangle Shirtwaist survivor, marveled at the safe, modern facility:
New York Times, click to enlarge
In 1957, Rock Hudson posed in their suits, an eagle coming to rest on his shoulder, the epitome of mid-century masculinity. What would Don Draper wear?
Eagle Clothes is mentioned in a 1958 issue of the journal American Speech, in a fascinating little article entitled "Some Popular Components of Trade Names." The article looks at the trend of suffixes like -master, -matic, and -rama (Roadmaster! Futurematic! Glamorama!). "Rama," says the author, dates back to the days of Balzac and means a "spectacular show or display." Eagle jumped on the -rama bandwagon with their Naturama line, as noted in this slice of the article's fantastic and exhaustive listing of -rama usages (click to enlarge):
By the late 1970s, as low-end leisure and high-end tailor-made suits did well, Eagle was failing. They filed for bankruptcy. Then, after a few acquisitions, they turned around and managed to survive most of the 1980s. In 1989, however, they filed for bankruptcy again and that's where the electronic paper trail ends.
Which brings us back to the sign. For more than half a century, the sign has heralded Gowanus. With all the hubbub of development vying for that poisoned land, I'm worried about it.
Over a year ago, Gowanus Lounge revealed that a Karl Fischer design was going to be landing here, a big blue-glass tower like all the other blue-glass towers, developed by the same guy who brought Hotel Le Bleu to 4th Avenue. He told Brooklyn Paper, "This area is becoming modern, trendy and new. The glass is part of that."
So far, all that exists of that glass tower is the sign that says it's coming, accompanied by another sign that says: Future Home of Greg's Express Rubbish Removal. So, who knows?
view from Hotel Le Bleu
With Gowanus possibly slipping back into de-gentrification as Whole Foods dickers, and with the bear economy wearily limping into hibernation, maybe the sign still has a chance.
In the New York Magazine article cited above, a local ironworker sees a long future for the Eagle sign. Despite the city's surplus of cranes and demolition men, he assures us, "It is made of 33 1/4-inch steel pipes. You'd need a crane to take it down. So it stays."
More Gowanus posts: