In fin-de-siecle France, aristocrats attending soirées and literary salons would pause briefly on the threshold of Parisian mansions and have their boots cleaned by a character known as a décrotteur. Irrespective of whether these bootlickers just lay down on the step and passively allowed the glitterati to wipe off the horse dung on their person or they took a more dynamic approach and enthusiastically sucked footwear clean of mud, it’s difficult to think of a more degrading occupation. Apart from stockbroking, that is.
I was reminded of this most ignominious of vocations this week when the decision by Goldman Sachs to adopt a “firmwide flexible dress code” was considered to be front-page newsworthy. Staff was instructed to bedeck itself “in a manner that is consistent with client expectations”. Given the obvious disdain in which my clientele holds me, I should by rights be clad in rags and placing a chamberpot at their disposal. Employees at the Vampire Squid were reminded that “all of us know what is and what is not appropriate for the workplace” and to exercise sound judgement, although I would argue evidence from Salvation Bank’s trading floor, any other at which I’ve worked and a casual stroll down Cheapside at lunchtime, suggests they don’t.
Personally, I have never been in favour of dressing down. If you come from the mean and beaten streets of a grim, northern metropolis where a suit meant either a court appearance or someone knocking on the door for rent, then much of the City’s appeal lay in the opportunities for dressing up. I wanted to twang my braces too. So starting off at Salomon Brothers on Wall Street 30 years ago, I was disappointed when I walked into the dealing room and found identikit American traders in dull suits, black loafers and plain, white, monogrammed shirts, set off with a Hermes tie. Gordon Gekko had not implied such sartorial monotony. And it’s not as though I were a fashion trendsetter. I favoured hideously garish ties and wide-boy suits. My plastic shoes squeaked and the polyester of my trousers was so threadbare as to render them almost diaphanous under strip-lighting.
The Goldmans Dressdown Memorandum, a red-letter day in the history of finance, observed “the changing nature of workplaces in favour of a more casual environment” but while they may be right in respect of office attire (after all, no one wears a bowler hat any longer) there’s nothing casual about my environment. With three weeks remaining of Salvation Bank’s financial year and my revenue target out of sight above the nimbostratus, even if I were in shorts and shades at my desk, I’m sitting on a knife-edge and sweating. I’m not smart. I’m not casual.
When the concept of dress-down Friday was introduced in the 1990s I was working for a Dutch post-office masquerading as an investment bank and they were anxious that standards should be maintained. Detailed instructions were disseminated. Men were told to dress as though they were meeting their father-in-law for the first time. My prospective father-in-law was Turkish so I sought out my line manager and asked for guidance: should I come to the office wearing a fez, baggy pants and curly slippers? He didn’t think that would strike the right note. I think I pretended my fiancée was posh and sauntered on to the floor the following day sporting a cricket sweater, flannels and cravat, clutching a small teddy bear under my arm.
I recollect around that time there were one or two anti-capitalist, Stop-The-City-style protests but organisers, in their infinite wisdom, arranged the first for a Friday. The intention of the anarchists was I think to dress smartly and penetrate deep into the Fat Cats’ basket and wreak havoc but everyone in the City was Friday casual and it caused no end of confusion.
I don’t remember the advice dispensed to female colleagues regarding professional garb at the time. No doubt, though, it was strikingly different from whatever guidelines had been laid down for the women working alongside me at that bucketshop operation in Moscow in the noughties. There, Russian girls, for none over the age of twenty-five seemed to be employed, appeared to have been given a mandate to provoke and arouse. Given there was a hypersexual in their midst, even a full-on burkha probably would been interpreted as ‘up for it’. Not that much modesty was in evidence. Heels were killer, hemlines were high, fits were tight, cuts were low and the effect inflammatory. From a sales trading perspective, I only ever thought about sex in between orders. The problem was that I hardly ever had any orders. In my time at that seraglio I could not honestly claim that I was distracted by the get-up and gladrags of this harem. That was because I did not think of anything else.
By the time I had detumesced and arrived at Inn Securities after the Great Financial Crisis, the formal business outfit was already a throwback to a bygone era and to don the full ensemble of suit with a matching tie and cufflinks and a dapper pocket square was almost an act of rebellion. It was a small office with relaxed practices and most of us would arrive in sports kit before taking it in turns to descend to the basement, shower and change. Over time, people became lazy and some days, just before the opening auction, rather than a snappy Savile Row suit, half of the dealing room would still be head-to-foot in heavily-discounted, low-quality Mike Ashley casual.
One morning, 10 minutes before the bell, my trader was making a move to go and freshen up. There was a deal coming to market that day, though, and I had put in a great deal of stockbroking in the previous few days and was confidently expecting an avalanche of orders from clients eager to repay me for my input. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a little while because I’d hate to miss a trade or bugger up the execution myself. Two hours later, having not troubled the scorers, he asked if I thought it would be OK if he went and showered. As it turned out, he could have taken a three-hour soak in the bath, followed by a massage, taken a day at a health spa and then a long weekend minibreak at a health farm and he would still not have missed one of my orders.
It seems perfectly logical to me, that if one is to sit in a seat in front of a screen for 50 hours a week then it would be far more comfortable if everyone put on pyjamas or a corporate onesie. No one puts on a tuxedo to sit on the sofa and watch the telly. Except Jacob Rees-Mogg, possibly. When boarding a long-haul flight, people slip into something more comfortable and less constricting than ‘hedge fund casual’ so why should the desk be any different?
It’s only a matter of time before someone turns up at Goldmans in a vest and budgie-smugglers or even worse, like a Yanomami Indian wearing only a penis gourd because that’s what his clients expect of him or it’s his idea of style. It’s not for me, though. When I make my passeggiata around the City at lunchtime, I like to catch sight of my reflection in a shop window and see the perfect simulacrum of a stockbroker which a well-tailored suit can carry off, the market wizard a raffish breast-pocket handkerchief can suggest. It’s like executing the perfect fraud. Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.