Last month the world’s leading bank wrote to all its employees telling them that they no longer needed to wear a suit. The sort of “business casual” clothes they had been wearing on Fridays were now OK for every day of the week. In the photo above you can see how happy they are with their tieless collars, their pink shirts, jumpers and ladies. Ladies in a black dress, a plaid shirt, a white jumper and goodness knows what else. A funny blend from the very casual weekend wear of the plaid and the grey V neck jumper, to the guys at the front who had merely removed their ties. And yes that is George Osbourne at the front, doing business casual as he knows it.
The business-wide casual dress code was launched via a memo which reads:
“As we continue to look for different ways to enhance our workplace, we’ve decided to expand the business casual dress code firmwide, starting tomorrow,” the US bank said, adding that the new dress code “reflects how the way we work is changing…More clients are dressing informally, and many parts of our company are already business casual,”
Staff were also referred to the JP Morgan “dress code FAQs” and told to ask their managers if they had any questions. And the fact there are rules and codes shows just how difficult this issue is. Barclays introduced dressed down and then had to ban jeans and flip flops at its head office.
Already American blue-chip companies like Ford and IBM have abolished compulsory ties and jackets, while “dress down Friday” has become dress down Wednesday and Thursday too especially in Silicon Valley, with second-generation tech companies like Google and Facebook doing away with the dress code completely.
On the other hand, only last week, a government sponsored report on social mobility indicated that job candidates that lack “polish” are rejected from jobs even if they are well qualified and keen. And in the course of these revelations we discovered that brown shoes are a complete no-no in the City. Some of my younger male readers and friends were rather horrified. Jamie told me that they like a brown shoe with a navy or brown suit. Yoric said he loved “ox-blood”. But these friends work in social housing and government where the rules of the city are unknown.
The reason brown is not worn in the city – especially in terms of footwear – is that for the private school/ top-university educated, upper middle class, wealthy men that run the city – brown shoes are what we wear in the country. Black, leather, laced up shoes speak of tradition, authority, wealth, privilege, insider knowledge, class, taste and know-how. Isn’t it interesting that as more and more people go casual, and the workforce, in general, becomes more diverse and democratic, what exactly you wear to work becomes a signifier of greater importance? As I indicated in a post recently the need to fit in with spoken and unspoken rules is very strong if one wants to be successful as a banker or underwriter in London. Black shoes, dark suits, sober tie, jacket on. And it needs to be an expensive suit, that fits well.
So is the suit still necessary?
I think the key issue here is that you need to dress for your audience more than for yourself. At work you are working for a company that has a certain image and brand and you have to fit in. When I go to the City every few years to raise millions of pounds to build homes for Londoners I always wear my most conventional outfit – usually a dark skirt suit, light blouse and smart, toning footwear. When I go to a garden party at a sheltered housing scheme (for older residents) I would wear a summer dress, or trousers and a blouse – certainly not a dark suit. I am still myself in both scenarios but dress in a way that helps the viewer instantly decide that I know what I am doing, I understand what they are looking for and that I can give them what they want. For the investor they must believe I will ensure their investment is safe and they will get the returns I am promising. Residents, on the other hand, need to know that as their landlord I am trustworthy and approachable.
The changing dress advice from JP Morgan is just a reflection on the changing dress codes of those they do business with. It is not good to dress very differently from those you want to influence or sell to. Many firms allow more sartorial freedom when wages are held down as it makes them look a bit more friendly and creative and a “great place to work” at no cost. But remember formal business wear equates to professionalism and authority; business casual suggests productivity and trustworthiness; businesses which emphasise creativity, innovation and “disruption” encourage the hoody and fashionable sports shoes. Industries which have to compete for work though pitches and presentations tend to stick with the most conservative outfits.
A study at the Kellogg School of Management in the US found that when those tested were given a doctor’s lab coat they were very diligent at completing cognitive tasks. When they were told the same coat was a “painter’s jacket” their performance dipped markedly. They call this “enclothed cognition” – what you wear affects your mindset, and ultimately performance. Professor of communications Ellen Bremen recommends wearing a suit during a phone interview for the same reason, while numerous home workers say they dress smart to mentally differentiate “home time” from “work time”.