Earning your pinstripes

There are times, even in our dressed-down age, when clothes maketh the deal

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

How will we dress when we finally, properly, truly, actually return to the office? Lockdown will ease as summer swells its heat and so it is possible that the modern predilection for aggressive casualness retains a Work From Home vibe.

While I maintained a counter-cultural conservative standard throughout all my online screen calls, I did not go the whole Jacob Rees-Mogg affect of dressing for dinner in the jungle, I merely always wore a tie. Opposite me screened many an executive talking from a spare bedroom wearing a t-shirt.

So commonplace was this that I did manage to begin taking them seriously — although, of course, the shorter the call the less likely this was. Nowadays every accountant and lawyer wants, at best, to dress as if they were a creative (though not yet reduce their fees to, say, those advertising and PR weasels).

My mother used to say that if you find yourself too dressed up, it’s easier to adjust to dress down than the opposite

Meanwhile the sort of consultant that one pays for advice on manufacturing processes looks less presentable than the lowliest paid operative on the factory floor. This is not a cunning plan to blend, drop the odd “wotcha, mate?” and report back to the boss class appropriately.

My mother used to say that if you find yourself too dressed up, it’s easier to adjust to dress down than the opposite, though I heard of one Lord Lieutenant in a ceremony on a Zoom call who, required to stand as the national anthem began to play, blinded his screen to the consternation of the other participants. His Number 1 Dress Uniform did not extend to its bottom half, having not returned from a locked down dry cleaner.

Sartorial declension in the office has been an increasing trait throughout my life. Thirty years ago, when I joined a law firm as a trainee, or articled clerk as the partners preferred to call us, wearing a suit, tie and black polished shoes was a prerequisite. It was the same everywhere else. These days virtually every professional services office has gone “smart casual”, even when meeting clients.

Journalists may still dress like absentminded academics and academics often now look as if they wear the clothes they woke up in or are just back from the gym. Even the House of Commons dropped its standards in the last Parliament, which is not surprising, so that one frequently sees male open necks in its chamber. 

I can’t think of a restaurant outside Paris that insists on a tie — even Wiltons, the comforting bastion of culinary expense where land meets finance and a sprinkling of rich Americans. When I last approached a dover sole there, there was the added excitement of a European gentleman’s chest hairs in view. Very modern Mayfair, but not what one hopes for in staid St. James’s.

I can’t think of a restaurant outside Paris that insists on a tie

My own office is as much an imposition of my own tastes as I can reasonably impose on a dozen or so others, although there is a clever, ambitious young man who, if he even wears a tie, might do so in combination with a cardigan and brown shoes. I don’t bother to remonstrate, which shows I am not irredeemably antediluvian, but we do have a rule that whenever we have a meeting with outsiders, we don the full armour — pinstripes and ties. Unless they are maintaining sartorial parity it unnerves them — advisors, if they bother with ties, often wear Drake’s; investment bankers like Hermès or Charvet but those who own the business wear Marinella.

Christopher Pincher, now our Housing Minister, was once rising throughout the ranks of a consultancy firm with a wardrobe fresh from Saville Row. His immediate superior was an American who imposed “Dress Down Fridays” — button-down pastel shirts and chinos. Pincher declined to adhere and was called in for an interview without coffee. “Why aren’t you keeping in with everyone else?” he was asked. “Ah yes,” replied Pincher, “you see, I’m going on after work …”

The American seemed a little confused, so Pincher added, “to dinner. I won’t have time to go home and change beforehand. I don’t know about the sort of places where you dine but I need to be in a suit … unless you’d like to let me finish early on Fridays, so that I would have time to dress properly?” He was not granted the concession, but was never bothered again on his choice of clothes.

Two years back I nearly bought a stake in my tailor. That’s one sure way to discover the profit margins

Two years back I nearly bought a stake in my tailor. That’s one sure way to discover the profit margins, even if I already knew that a few hundred pounds’ worth of cloth is being crafted into a few thousand pounds’ worth of tailoring. The investment did not happen and as the economy recently thawed I was pleased to discover that he was still in business.

“How’s trade been?” I asked as I was being measured for another lightweight summer chalkstripe. “Oh, some of my clients have been very good to me throughout the Freeze, sir,” came the revealing yet stonewalling reply.

Maybe there is demand to be peacock proud in the office after all. But I would hate for it being due to this clobber becoming fashionable.

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