Goldman Sachs, that venerable bastion of high finance, made waves by announcing a few months ago that it was finally reviewing its dress code for all employees. The US bank stated that the “changing nature of workplaces generally in favor of a more casual environment” had prompted the move to a “firm-wide flexible dress code”. “Casual dress is not appropriate every day and for every interaction and we trust you will consistently exercise good judgment in this regard,” they added. This then caused frantic speculation as to what employees should actually wear, to the point that the company went as far as to post a poll on Twitter (the winner: Mark Zuckerberg’s signature outfit, a hoodie and sneakers).
What should Goldman Sachs employees wear to work tomorrow? Asking for a friend… https://t.co/zFKNe4hyWf— Goldman Sachs (@GoldmanSachs) March 6, 2019
This prompted a lively debate within our team about the history of fashion in finance and current trends. It then made us decide to write a short exposé with some recommendations for our readers wishing to land a job in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, or wondering whether they look the part.
Clothes as Signifiers
Humans are the only animals that make and regularly wear clothing, despite sometimes imposing them on our canine companions. Beyond their practical uses, however, clothes also absolve other functions in our society. They have historically been used to communicate status, indicate a profession, such as uniforms, or express personality. In fact, Desmond Morris states, “It is impossible to wear clothes without transmitting social signals.”
This has been particularly true in the world of finance, where having the right look has always been important. One needs to look professional, presentable, and make some implicit statement about wealth with their attire. There are countless websites devoted to how to dress for an interview in investment banking, what the secret dress codes are at the different investment banks, as well as a personal favorite, the Midtown Uniform Instagram page.
In this article, we will explore how the fashion in finance has changed over the years for both men and women, what people are trying to signify through their outfit choices, and how we got from pinstripe suits to “Patagucci” vests and Apple watches to help our readers through the maze of business casual dress.
Wall Street vs. Silicon Valley: The Current Landscape
Historically, those employed in financial services sported very recognizable looks. The first image that comes to mind and one that many have grown up with and somehow strived to emulate was that of Gordon Gekko: brash, bold, and very stylish. Investment bankers conjured images of men in red suspenders, with two-tone shirts, slicked-back hair, and very flashy watches.
Even as the excesses of the 80s waned, those looking for a job in financial services were advised to dress quite conservatively. A very popular piece generated by the very popular Twitter account GSelevator did the rounds a few years ago. It gave out tips such as “no brown shoes” or “no pleats or cuffs” and was an excellent companion to the numerous articles designed to help candidates dress appropriately for interviews. However, those tips, while still valid and somewhat applicable, do not help now that professions in finance are a lot more varied and that even the most conservative institutions are doing away with their stringent dress code.
Employment in finance is not as desirable as it once was: banks and investment funds are competing with tech firms to hire the best and brightest graduates. Banks are adapting their dress code requirements, as Goldman just did, to look more modern and more appealing. Not only that, but a whole range of other possible careers has emerged in financial services beyond banking: there are a host of private equity, venture capital and hedge funds, each with slightly different cultures, and thus slightly different styles. This new flexibility in dress code does, however, mean more room for confusion.
An amazing new phenomenon has also come into existence: the rise of the “midtown uniform.” It is a very recognizable outfit: dress pants or khakis (there is a subtle distinction here that I will explain), dress shirt, and a fleece vest, preferably emblazoned with the name of your firm. Anyone spotting someone with this outfit immediately knows that this person works in financial services, and at which firm. The Patagucci vest has pretty much replaced the banker bag. The “midtown uniform” has become so ubiquitous that a dedicated Instagram account has gone viral and has amassed more than 140 thousand followers. Not only that but Patagonia (nicknamed Patagucci because of its desirability and price point) has refused to supply more vests to financial services firms as they are afraid of becoming too closely associated with the sector.
There are subtleties in this look, however: workers at firms at the most conservative end of the spectrum, such as banks and private equity funds, still wear suit trousers and formal shirts under their Patagucci. Khakis and casual shirts (or, gasp, t-shirts) are reserved for hedge funds and VC funds who tend to be a lot more casual, particularly as people are generally coming to ask for money. It is a great truth that the most casually dressed person in the room is usually the most powerful.
So How Should One Dress for the Job They Want?
A good rule of thumb is that of observing your colleagues (or future colleagues) and taking a clue from your peers. You should aim to look polished and appropriate to the environment, but not too fashionable. Workplaces are becoming more flexible and casual, as the way we work is changing, more meetings are virtual and careers are more varied. Keep in mind that what you are trying to convey through your outfit is that you are good at your job, and this will mean something different based on the job and on the audience. There are however some distinct trends that vary for each sector.
Investment Banking and Private Equity
As discussed above, clothes are signifiers: for someone who handles money for work, ultimately the message is that of, well, having money. For men in investment banking or in other sell-side roles, this still means crisp, well-fitted shirts, blue or gray suits (not black or patterned, ever) and ties really only for client meetings if the client is more formal, such as most corporates or pension funds would be. It is seen as trendy to wear colored socks, but it can be very hard to pull off, particularly in the US.
As for women working in banking in London or New York, the consensus agreement amongst my female financial services colleagues is that suits make you look “junior.” It is all about the elegant dress, the statement shoe (Gucci loafers are an excellent choice, always) and the well-matched but not matchy trouser and jacket. Pantsuits are now the preserve of politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. Theresa May does stray from the mold but is also often ridiculed for her slightly more adventurous fashion choices.
The midtown uniform is highly encouraged if this is your line of work: invest in nice bottoms and crisp shirts and let your corporate fleece vest do the talking.
Silicon Valley comes with its own set of rules: it has always been more casual than NYC, with suits being a rare sight. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is not a certain fashion look that people follow and that helps bystanders realize that they work in the valley. A great reference for anyone thinking of moving there and getting established as a VC is VC starter kit. It will tell you all you need to look the part, from Patagonia fleece vests to Instagram shoes, including the glorious (and supremely comfortable, it must be said), Allbirds. These looks are unisex! Even here though, the fleece vest is ubiquitous, so much so that Fortune wrote a satire piece about men in vests raising large funds without knowing anything about venture investing.
For startup employees, a more casual and relaxed look is definitely appropriate. Jeans with button downs, or even a simple t-shirt. Generally, those with more external meetings dress up a touch more.
Finally, another option to succeed is to pick a highly recognizable personal uniform. Iconic on this front is Steve Jobs with his black turtleneck and Mark Zuckerberg. Unfortunately, black turtlenecks may have been ruined forever by Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos fame.
Remote Finance Professionals
The number of remote professionals is growing at a very fast pace in all industries. For instance, all of us at Toptal work this way. So how should you, and us, think about how to dress for work or for an interview in this case? Formal business dress is mostly unnecessary. It is still important, however, to remember that even if you are at home, when you interact with your colleagues and clients through video, that you should still look presentable and professional.
Perhaps more important than the clothes is the camera backdrop (psst, we can see your drying laundry behind you). While hanging your CFA degree or Wharton MBA diploma in your camera backdrop is a bit on the nose (clients and colleagues can simply see our credentials on Linkedin after all), it seems that a more subtle approach like an etagere with items displaying your passions can be more authoritative and foster deeper relationships. I have a colleague who lines her shelves with finance books (e.g., The Intelligent Investor, Barbarians at the Gate) but then also has some surprises like the fiction novel A Gentleman in Moscow and a small replica of the Eiffel tower from her recent trip. All these items create great fodder for getting conversations going with new contacts.
There has never been as good a time to mix fashion and finance and have fun with outfits in financial services. The level of freedom and latitude one has is unprecedented. Ultimately, what matters is to look professional, feel comfortable, and express your personality.
Understanding the basics
The Patagucci (Patagonia, nicknamed Patagucci because of its desirability and price point) vest has pretty much replaced the banker bag. The “midtown uniform” has become so ubiquitous that a dedicated Instagram account has gone viral. Patagonia has refused to supply more vests to financial services firms as they are afraid of becoming too closely associated with the sector.
A good rule of thumb is that of observing your colleagues (or future colleagues) and taking a clue from your peers. You should aim to look polished and appropriate to the environment, but not too fashionable. Workplaces are becoming more flexible and casual, as the way we work is changing, more meetings are virtual, and careers are more varied.
What you are trying to convey through your outfit is that you are good at your job, and this will mean something different based on the job and on the audience. There are, however, some distinct trends that vary for each sector.