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The image of a respectable banker was historically an impeccable three-piece business suit, a moderate tie of proper length, neat hair and an expensive watch. But since the beginning of the 1990s in the US and the UK, the move towards more informal apparel was embraced by even the most conservative and anachronistic banking groups.
Loosened restrictions over the past decade or so has not been good news for Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss and other heavyweights in sartorial elegance that were staples in the wardrobes of the self-respecting banker. But the changes have made work attire more comfortable, created a more relaxed atmosphere and, let’s face it, made clothes shopping more affordable at a time when salaries and bonuses are not what they used to be.
Dress-down Fridays, imported from Silicon Valley in the early naughties, was instrumental in this cultural shift, and the explosion of technology start-ups since the financial crisis has eroded the business formal look even further.
Ditching stuffy image?
Some banks now even permit jeans, much to the chagrin of some of the old-timers. But many banks are paying attention to the surveys that prove staff work more efficiently in business casual, while also keen to compete with the cool working environments offered by many of the new digital kids on the block.
Having said that, bankers, particularly the more junior employees who are still finding their way, have to be careful how far they go.
Consultancies have warned that a dress code that is too informal may give clients the impression that the bank is not really committed to their business and looking after their money.
Just one more challenge for the banks to deal with, Finbuzz lifts the lid on the dress code policy at seven of the world’s biggest banks.
Short and Sharp
The Deutsche Bank dress code policy is brief and to the point. It insists on everything “well-ironed” and “buttoned down”. You may wear a sari to work, but not jeans, t-shirts or open sandals.
In 2011, Swiss bank UBS was laughed off the block for a dress-code that recommended female staff repair stockings with transparent nail enamel and wear flesh-coloured underwear, while men must shave daily and cut their hair monthly. Potentially the most ridiculous dress-code policy in history, which at 44 pages long, may also have been the longest, also stipulated staff to avoid dishes made with garlic and onions and eat chewing gum with “parsimony”. UBS said at the time it would make certain revisions but it is not clear how the policy document has changed since.
Since Barclays Bank moved into its new headquarters in Canary Wharf, it allows “business casual” five days a week. But there are still some taboos. Flip-flops, shorts and strapless tops are not permitted and could prompt disciplinary action. The staff in Asset and Sales Finance cannot wear sportswear, trainers or denims.
A bit sexist?
Citibank dress code urges its female bankers to wear heels instead of “sensible shoes”. This was mentioned in a 2013 Trade Union Congress (TUC) report as an example of “sexism in dress codes”. The report insists that besides being sexist, this demand can cause back and feet problems.
JP Morgan, described by the Observer newspaper as a “bastion of the old way of doing things”, was actually a trailblazer in adopting the everyday casual look back in 2000. Many predicted a great “dress collapse” and, in a way, it did happen since some employees had too laid back a concept of dressing casually. Three years later the bank was forced into issuing a desperate three-page memo reminding male members of staff about the necessity of shaving, polishing shoes and ironing.
While Goldman Sachs bosses Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cogn can indulge themselves, growing a beard or wearing a playful orange and green tie, it seems that down the pecking order there is potentially less opportunity for creativity. Based on the 46 male office bankers in the US bank’s 2014 annual report, the most popular dress – at least for the men – is a dark grey suit, a white shirt and a dark blue tie. A few executives in the technology advisory teams have taken a stand and ditched their ties though – as one would expect from tech people.
In one newspaper interview, founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson discloses his long-time hatred of ties and how he banned them after he bought the collapsed British bank Northern Rock and transformed it into Virgin Money. He considers the suit and tie an anachronism that no longer serves any useful purpose but only creates a barrier between a banker and a client. Branson has urged CEOs everywhere to rise up in a global fight against what he describes as “nooses”. Very-Bransonish indeed.