Why dressing for success now means looking like hell.
Get on an elevator in any Manhattan office building, and there's a good chance you'll find yourself surrounded by them: the tattersalls, the windowpanes, the mini-checks of Brooks Brothers' fleet of Non-Iron Dress Shirts.
Inoffensive? Yes, as are the often-accompanying oxfords with Nike Air technology in the soles. But as the patterns blend together, they start to form a vaguely disturbing picture.
Gone is the time when the Patrick Batemans of the world could hold pissing contests over the microscopic differences in their business card stocks, dismissing peons for the inferior weaves of their suits. These days, there are fewer distinctions between industries and power levels. Pretty much everyone looks more like they belong in tech support than in a partners' meeting.
That's because somewhere between His Girl Friday and casual Friday, between black-tie and BlackBerrys, our workforce morphed from Mad Men into marathon men-and the race is not to the sartorial top, but to the bottom of the laundry pile.
When the dotcom bubble burst, many predicted an end to Teva-wearing C.E.O.'s and even the curtailment of casual Fridays. Clearly the second tsunami of tech money, which brought twentysomethings in hoodies to the head of the conference table, has helped keep that from happening. But tech chic only has so much to do with the dressing down of the workforce. As Bill Clinton might say, it's "the economy, stupid."
Before sitting down to write this, I emailed a bunch of friends in various professions and asked them about their work wear. The men overwhelmingly responded with an affinity for the aforementioned stiff shirts from Brooks Brothers, as well as half-brags about their disheveled appearances at the office. "I wind up wearing my lunch more often than not" one wrote [subtext: because I eat at my desk every day]. "I wear pleated-front pants because they're more comfortable," another admitted [subtext: I eat at my desk every day-and every night].
If you look good, you're obviously not working hard enough. Outdoing the next guy in terms of looking put-upon is the new pissing contest.
In a world where profits are down, bankruptcies are rampant, and the most entrenched I-bankers are getting the heave-ho, you can't afford to look as though you spared an extra second thinking about the cut of your Charvet shirt. Did you go shopping for a Breguet instead of billing that extra hour? Are you interviewing? Because seriously, who wears a suit these days? Who has time for that?
With subprime losses piling up, it's not just cubicle-bound young analysts who are being subjected to this sort of scrutiny. After all, Angelo Mozilo always looks like he put a lot of thought into his clothes. Company shareholders are more concerned with what the stewards of their wealth actually do. "Hey, nice suit, asshole. How much did it cost me?"
In fact, it's not uncommon for the messiest guy in the office to also be the most heralded, a phenomenon that has made its way into popular culture. In Dana Vachon's recent novel, Mergers & Acquisitions, the only clear hero is the poor overweight slob to whom all J.S. Spenser's dirty work has been outsourced. The other guys-the ones who can tell the difference between a Turnbull & Asser and a Thomas Pink shirt "blindfolded"-are not so laudable.
Women can take even more criticism if they seem overly concerned with their dress-often at the hands of female superiors. "I'm more 'fashiony,' which is definitely misunderstood and under-appreciated in my line of work," wrote a V.P. at one of New York's better banks. Sport more tailored and modern clothing and you get hit with a double-whammy-not only are you not working hard enough, you're trying to distract everyone else from their business.
If you think that's all hooey, I'd ask you to recall the time Hillary Clinton showed up on the Senate floor revealing a centimeter of cleavage under her rose-colored blazer. No one went so far as to accuse her of trolling for a date, but no one exactly congratulated her on the outfit either. (Or glance at the wardrobes of such titans as Meg Whitman, who just stepped down from her post as eBay's C.E.O., and Irene Rosenfeld, head of Kraft Foods. For them, the way to success was brains, hard work, and separates from Talbots.)
There are, of course, the rare exceptions to the rule. Julie Macklowe, portfolio manager for Sigma Capital Management, was recently recognized as an "It" girl by Vogue. And, speaking of that venerable title, fashion is perhaps the one industry where showing up looking like a slob or like a buttoned-up matron can get you into hot water. Don something less-than and you could face the same question: "Who has time for.that?"Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.