Yesterday’s Evening Standard carried the story of Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger, being banned from the Soho House private members club for repeatedly turning up in a suit and tie. Not so long ago, you couldn’t get into a posh club without a suit and tie but this club has turned the old rules on their head. Inverted snobbery perhaps?
Or maybe not. Fashions and dress codes are all about signalling. (H/T Chris Dillow.) We dress in a certain way to send out signals to peer groups, prospective employers, clients and potential sexual partners. Much of the time we don’t think about it because the social conditioning that causes us to dress that way is so deeply ingrained. We only notice when we are in an unfamiliar social group or when the rules change.
And, from time to time, they do change. The suntan is a good example of how signalling can shift over time. Until the early to mid twentieth century, a suntan signified poverty and low status. The only people who had tanned skin were agricultural labourers who spent all their time outside. The absence of a tan was a signal that you were either so rich you didn’t need to work, or that you had a cushy job in an office. People would go to great lengths to avoid getting the sun-browned skin which might undermine their social status, hence the Victorian woman’s big hats and dresses with long sleeves.
Then, sometime after the Second World War, suntans became fashionable. They signified that you went on the sort of expensive holidays to hot countries which were still out of reach for most people. Having a tan in winter showed that you could afford to visit such places often and for long periods. When sun holidays became cheaper and tanning salons emerged, the all-year tan became more accessible to more people and so its value as a social signal was weakened. Health scares shifted attitudes again and the allure of the suntan faded. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)
Could something similar be happening to the suit? For as long as most of us can remember, the suit has been associated with wealth and power. Apart from a few rare exceptions, such as rock stars and footballers, those who made serious money wore suits to work. Until relatively recently, anyone who didn’t wear a suit at work was unlikely to be wealthy.
That has changed rapidly over recent years. It is true that investment bankers and partners in accountancy, law and consultancy firms still wear suits but, often, if they are not meeting clients they dress down. If they are going to visit firms in the technology or creative sectors they dress down to match their clients. I’ve told the story before of my colleague who had to go back to his hotel room to change uniform when he visited two different clients on the same day. In some sectors, people in high status jobs no longer wear suits at all. The dress down codes in these companies are often just as strictly enforced as the dress up codes in others.
Furthermore, many of those making really big money have stopped wearing suits altogether.
Habitually tieless and dressed-down casual, they sit at computer screens and construct complicated trading strategies. Many of them stay at their desks without pause or interruption from 7am to 9pm on weekdays and maintain electronic contact with markets at all other times. They are not to be pitied. Some of them are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
The dress down clothes are, of course, as expensive as the suits they used to wear in the City. ‘Power casual’ is the dress code. No, really.
Not wearing a suit sends out signals about a certain kind of power:
Ms. Garkusha sums up the hedge-fund dress code for men as the attitude that “we can dress like this because we make a lot of money.”
Suits are for people who have to impress clients or, worse, meet the general public. Power casual is for people who can do what they like:
The investment banker talks your ear off, charms you with his minor gifts. And for what? To give advice. There’s a hedge-fund put-down. “We get to pull the trigger,” says one manager. Just for the pleasure of illustrating the point, one hedge-fund guy sitting at a café in a burgundy golf shirt—he has no clients and thus no dress code—grabs his cell phone off the table. “Give me $100 million of . . . ,” he says, and names the company.
It is now possible to make lots of money in organisations which don’t require you to wear a suit. A suit could even be regarded as a signal of a lack of control. If you have to turn up to a bar or club after work in a suit, does it mean that you have the sort of job where other people are calling the shots? Those who run their own shows, or whose clients are so in awe of their expertise that they don’t care how they look, get to wear what they like.
Of course, this isn’t altogether true. There are still powerful people making lots of money who choose to wear suits. Many have just as much autonomy in their roles as the creatives, hedge-fund managers and technology whizz-kids who dress down.
But things are changing. The signals that a well cut suit sends out are now being received differently in some quarters. Where once, the suit guaranteed status and authority, it is now seen by some as a symbol of stuffiness and, worse, a lack of power and autonomy.
Maybe this is just a blip and the suit will re-assert itself. After all, its demise has been predicted before. But new industries and new jobs create new rules. In some areas, people’s understanding of ‘power dressing’ is shifting. A suit, even a bespoke one, is not the guarantor of authority and status that it once was.