If you are hoping for a guideline on what to wear for work or during an interview, then you'd better stop reading, I haven't got a clue anymore.
Watching a business documentary the other night I noticed they were all still wearing suits and ties. It's a sign of the times that I thought this made them look a little bit odd (or odder as the case may be). It also reminded me that I have absolutely no idea what to wear for business anymore.
UBS Bank employees must also be confused - why else would they have a forty-four page book of guidelines on dress code? The Magna Carta managed to enshrine English Law over two pages, but seemingly forty-four pages is now the benchmark to ascertain what trousers to wear in a bank.
It used to be easy. Certainly in my game it used to be anyway. You went to work and you tried to out-do everyone in the office with your clothing. The culture in many recruitment offices when I started out in the early nineties was dress "up" - and the more bespoke, beautifully made items the better. I was encouraged by my boss to spend a % of my monthly income on something for business and to be fair, I usually did. It was sort of a cross between macho pride and dandyism, if that makes sense?
I actually still have some brogues made by Church from this period, together with some ties from Savile Row. You could say "see, they have returned their investment with their longevity" except, a bit like the suits I had made, I never wear them now.
It was sometime after the millennium that it really started to change. It must have been to do with the dot.com bubble. Around this time you had Californians developing billion dollar businesses who dressed not so much "down" as "down and out". Soon our own start-ups were full of people wearing what they wanted. This sent the Investment bankers into a tailspin - all of a sudden they were turning up to help conduct IPOs and being derided as "the suits" and not in a nice, endearing way. Goldman Sachs, being the self-styled Masters of The Universe, not used to being mocked, reacted.
Emmanuel Derman, who spent 17 years at GS, describes 1999 onwards:
"Each new morning saw formerly navy-suited partners come to work dressed in manifestly casual trousers and sports jackets over open-necked shirts".
Today, Goldman Sachs employees are told:
Dress changes daily: between formal and business casual depending in which area you work and how much client contact you'll have on a specific day.
And I think that is the problem: we are now completely in limbo land and you need about 5 different outfits in the average client-facing office - who defines what "business casual" is supposed to be? Mayfair Hedge Fund managers dress immaculately, but rarely in suits and never in the tired old cliché of "polo shirt and a pair of khakis".
Your modern business suit has its origins in 18th Century England with Beau Brummell going for a tailored coat and longer trousers. Later, the gamekeepers’ uniform of the late Victorian era was pretty much the blueprint for the business suit, but only initially used in sport, hunting or at the seaside. It became acceptable business wear in the Edwardian era. After the First World War, the “lounge suit” you are perhaps wearing today was the norm.
There hasn’t been much sartorial revolution since then. Sure, the lapels got wider or narrower and in the 80s Armani produced suits with the vents removed. Vents? You know, the vents you should have in the back of your suit coat that allow you to sit on a horse’s saddle correctly. Very important we have those nowadays.
The brogues or semi-brogues on your feet have decorative holes because the forerunner of this style had real holes in to let water in and out when you were hunting. The water insulated your feet, like a wetsuit does today.
Your tie came from a mishmash of the old “ruff”, “cravat” and Horse & Carriage drivers who used garish cloth to stop the cold blowing down their necks.
I have no idea why we are still wearing these clothes in 2015. I find it quite ridiculous. I turn up for meetings some days and wonder what the point is. I’m sat there in my suit and the guy I’ve come to visit has trainers on and a t-shirt.
I went to see a West London "Cool" food startup in about 2004 and when I rocked up in my suit and tie the owner actually said in the meeting "I like you but you just look like all the rest of them". Great. (I assume by "them" he meant all other fine and upstanding members of the recruitment community).
The week after I was invited up to Premier Foods HQ in St Albans and confident the landscape had changed, I went without my tie on. I think you can guess the rest.
The obvious solution to this is to ring people up beforehand, but I find that all a bit weird, it has something of the stalker about it "Hi, can you tell me what your Managing Director is wearing today"? On the odd occasion that I am sending people on interview and the dress code is "casual" I tell them to just go in a suit without a tie on and hope for the best. The alternative is I sit worrying, one eye on the clock, hoping they didn't turn up in a onesie. You may laugh, but nothing surprises me anymore, nothing.
Incidentally, I don't want to burst the "A Tie Makes You Smart" crowd's bubble here, but wearing a tie does not automatically make you look smart, in fact if it's tied in a hideous manner (as is fashionable amongst the yoof), it tends to have the opposite effect. Some people can dress like a bin-man and look immaculate; others can wear a suit and look a complete mess (the Mayor of London springs to mind).
I asked my friend, Tom Arnall, who is the best dressed businessman I know, his work wardrobe bursting with (at least) ten Gieves & Hawkes suits “why do we bother with a suit at work”?
He decided to ask his tailor at G&H. Here is Tim Ardron with the final word (for me) on the importance of the business suit…
I think the best visual way for a gentlemen to display his professional intentions around the workplace is in the form a finely cut suit.
A single breasted two button two-piece in dark charcoal or navy is the aged old winning combination for men of any size, shape or colour to add a level of professional formality to their wardrobe. Starting off as the basic everyday leisure attire of gentlemen, the suit has gradually become less associated with casual wear and increasingly reserved for the business world.
In a strange way, the suit can be as much about standing out as blending in. We are naturally drawn toward muted colours like charcoal, navy or mid-grey when choosing our business threads; It gives us a great platform to be able to mix our shirts and tie combinations over the course of the week so as to never be found out if you end up wearing the same suit two days on the bounce! But the chance to stand out is still there, be it in the lapel style, pocket layouts and subtle intricacies in the weave of the cloth.
The real reason behind why we wear suits in the workplace I suppose is up for debate but what is extremely apparent is the effect it can have on us when putting one on in the morning. Our chest expands, posture straightens, and straight away we feel more authoritative in our self. Tailored well, it can give us an extremely flattering and clean silhouette too. No risk of any distractions to the audience when you’re giving the big pitch!
Scott Hutchinson is the Principal of UK Food & Drink at Interim Partners.