Menswear Friday – is the suit still necessary?

posted in: Style advice | 10
JP Morgan staff (WSJ)
JP Morgan staff (WSJ)

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.

Brown shoes in the city
Men in the City (from the Guardian)

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”.






10 Responses

  1. Claire

    Your posts are always so thought-provoking–thank you. I was just talking yesterday about the British no-brown shoes custom…It’s funny that this particular custom didn’t make the leap across the pond to America, as we do not make the same “country” associations with brown shoes! Even if business casual is here to stay, I agree with you that professional clothes are still just as important as they were in the suit and tie era. My office does not have a dress code. Still, if I am making a presentation to a room of people who are senior to me in age and mostly male then I dress business formal so that my look reinforces my authority. Like all things, it’s a bit more complicated for a woman. I don’t want to look too severe, NEVER want to dress sexy, but still want to use clothes to enhance my image. It’s tough enough in the working world, why not use anything you can to your advantage? You make a great point about the importance of dressing like the people you are trying to influence/superiors. I was recently chatting with a close friend, a software engineer, who regularly speaks at tech conferences. She was lamenting how tired she is of having to wear “jeans and a graphic t-shirt” when she presents at conferences. She said that she would never be taken seriously (by her almost exclusively male audience) if she showed up in a pencil skirt and cardigan. But she would actually feel more confident in a pencil skirt/cardi. Even if dress codes are relaxed, there will always be a right and wrong way to dress in each profession!

  2. Kerry

    It’s interesting that this variation in work attire, depending on company or type of work, would not have been the case even twenty years ago, it would have been a suit and tie unless a uniform was provided, for office wear. The tie might come off at drinks on a Friday night. Oh how things have changed in many professions, but not all. My husband hasn’t worn a tie for a long time and a suit only for when he plays consultant at meetings with external companies. But now he has a new job in a legal firm, there is only ten people and it is suits AND ties every day! He wasn’t sure on the first day so he ‘frocked up’ as he calls it, and lucky he did, they are very serious about it, and a tie is always worn. We live in Melbourne so summer is going to be interesting for him!

  3. Yoric

    A great blog! I’ve worked in many offices and the rules (formal and informal) vary greatly. Most places operate a business casual approach where trousers, shirt and shoes are required but not a tie or jacket. I’ve also worked in an office where ties were required and this became a bit of a matter of resentment amongst the men, particularly where the perception was that the women could pretty much wear anything except jeans! I’ve also worked in an office where there was no formal requirement for a tie, but everyone knew that the CEO liked managers to wear a tie so it was an unwritten rule – especially if you were in head office! I have to say I prefer a flexible approach. Most of us are able to judge the suitability of an outfit perfectly well – I always follow the rule that if you have to think about it, its not appropriate!

    For what its worth, I think its important to be well dressed. It shows respect for you and the people you are dealing with. I really enjoy black tie events (not that I go to many) but it gives you a chance to wear something a bit different from the norm. GQ has an endless supply of guides!! That said, wearing a suit for work gives you very little room when you want to look smart for any other reason!

  4. Stephanie

    Kate This is so interesting. I am on a leadership course at a business school at the moment, for my workplace. I was shocked when I was only one of three to show up in a suit and only one of two (me and another woman) to show up in a dark suit (though I did wear cabernet-coloured shoes :)). Yes I work in the public domain but in the most conservative part. Maybe this just means that I am old or too old-fashioned but I remain surprised at this evolution and am unlikely to dress down in future to a significant degree. Some of this is about my audience but no insignificant part is about how I want to feel when I am in certain situations. I have noticed that people are dressing more and more casually in my workplace but have always perceived there to be limits.

  5. pia

    Next time I go into Canary Wharf at lunch time I must count the number of brown shoes & test this no brown shoes for finance workers claim! I’ve read too that finance workers should dress conservatively, but when I check out the ladies at CW most were more creatively dressed than that. True they’re probably not as fashion forward as the fashion crowd imagine, but they’re certainly not boring nor dowdy.

  6. Lynn Mally

    My husband, a just retired academic, doesn’t own a suit. In fact, the last time I saw him in one might have been at our wedding 35 plus years ago. For “fancy” occasions he wears a sports coat and non jeans. Every once in awhile he wears a tie. But this is the man who invented the concept of the “fancy dress t shirt.”

  7. SJ Kurtz

    My spouse used to get endless ribbing (and some actual vitriol) for wearing a suit to his marketing job at Microsoft. He dressed like the people he spoke to. He never wore a tshirt to work unless it was delivered to his office chair as some company-wide promotion (my favorite is still the bright safety orange “Information Worker”) and they were all expected to wear them. Oddly, that was never considered being told how to dress “like The Man” even though it was.

    Was this just a West Coast/USA: Seattle thing? They did it at Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony and Amazon as well. No one looked good in them, they never fit, you were expected to pull it over your shirt and tie and stand for an office photo. I have many group photos of me with a too large tshirt over my office dress at the Symphony. I do not look happy, and I loved that job.

    Is the suit necessary? Is it still allowed?

  8. sew2pro

    My son’s sixth form requires him to wear a suit and I worry that this may be the only time in his life he gets to do that (I suspect he’ll go to college next year and not finish A levels: the college isn’t fussy about clothes). I had all these ideas of shopping for something smart and stylish (a grey textured jacket and Tom’s Jets Liberty print tie I could make him) but he couldn’t care less. This morning my friend tells me her son of the same age has three suits he’s chosen, and 12 ties, including a Friday tie.

    Guess which boy wants to do engineering and which one drama! Sigh.

    • fabrickated

      Wow! That is interesting. When my kids went to Sixth form they swapped the school uniform for a dark suit and light coloured shirt/blouse. I think it is quite a good discipline, getting them to think about the world of work. Esme got two or three suits from the Next sale (she was a petite size 6), and quite a wide range of blouses, whereas George (my somewhat portly son), got one grey M&S one and wore it with his old white school shirts and a tie he got off his dad. As you say their sartorial attitudes are already established by adolescence.

  9. neucarol

    I suspect the reason the US doesn’t have the cultural ‘no-no’ to brown shoes is that we don’t have the history of private schools where dress codes are strictly enforced.
    Take a look at the F/W 2016 menswear designer collections for brown shoes, and others.

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