The Casual Banker: In Fashion Shift, J. P. Morgan Dresses Down

J.P. Morgan & Company, a bastion of the old way of doing things, has surrendered. One of the world’s most formal institutions has opted to jettison the business suit as a required form of dress. Henceforth, every day is casual day at the mighty Morgan.

At the beginning of February, departmental heads at the firm’s headquarters at 60 Wall Street began distributing memos to their staffs announcing the new dress policy: Effective immediately, employees would now be permitted to dress “business appropriate” five days per week. Oh, yes, they’ll be expected to have a suit handy, just in case, but from now on, they’ll be allowed to show up for work dressed like their ideal clients, the open-collared technology entrepreneurs who have all the prospects and most of the money.

For once, the firm was ahead of the curve. While many of its competitors have experimented in recent years with casual Fridays and dress-down summers, none of the big investment banks have gone full-time casual. Now J.P. Morgan, eager to stem a tide of defections to dot-com start-ups and buy-side investment boutiques, has thrown a bone to its young employees and sent a signal to prospective clients: J.P. Morgan is hip.

Inside and outside the firm, the news inspired a host of reactions—relief, surprise, disgust. “That’s ridiculous,” said one competitor.

“It shows how desperate they are,” said a banker at a rival firm, who still wears a suit to work. “You don’t walk into J.P. Morgan looking for a guy in chinos.”

A former Morgan employee summed it up simply: “What are the firms you would absolutely expect not to change? I would say that J.P. Morgan’s at the top of the list.”

But change it has, and the firm’s investment bankers will simply have to adapt, broadening their fashion horizons to meet the demands of a work environment that, dress-wise, may become something of a free-for-all. Firms like Merrill Lynch & Company and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc. are already fully casual in certain departments (though not their investment banks). Other firms like Deutsche Bank A.G. and Goldman Sachs & Company have instituted casual Fridays and summers. The experience at these and other places suggest that the Wall Street is lurching into a fashion disaster, as armies of young men in golf shirts, tight khakis and Topsiders march around lower Manhattan, profaning the towers of granite, glass and steel around them.

The shedding of the business suit further erodes the boundaries between Wall Street and the rest of the world. As online brokerages have flourished, as the Internet has opened up the formerly arcane secrets of the Street to the investing public, the guys in the temple have ceased to be the high priests. So they are shedding their robes. If the suits aren’t wearing suits, what will we call them?

‘Couch-Potato Friday’

“The big problem is that nobody knows what casual means in specific terms,” said G. Bruce Boyer, the men’s fashion editor of Quest magazine and the author of several books on the topic. “A couple of years ago when this started, the boss thought it would be good to promote camaraderie and to make life easier for his workers, so he said, ‘Starting next week, we’re going to have a casual-Friday dress-down.’ And the next Friday, some of the guys came in with, you know, cutoffs and flip-flops, and the boss was in a cashmere blazer and silk Polo shirt, and he looked at them and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? I said casual!’”

“Men love to make sure they don’t look like fools; this is the most important thing for men’s clothes,” said Anne Hollander, a “scholar of dress” who wrote Sex and Suits, a history of professional wear. “You don’t have to look sexy, but you do have to look right for the occasion. The only people who don’t mind looking stupid are performers and people who have no power, and they can play with interesting, jolly stuff that makes them look like a fool. But this is not how your standard male person wishes to operate in the world.”

“To adapt themselves to some new thing tends to make them feel very resentful and resistant,” Ms. Hollander went on. “Now casual clothing is going to allow everyone to think they’re being liberated, but they’re all being imprisoned in a different set of rules.”

Uniformity will eventually prevail. The trading desks where the casual-attire rule has been in place for a while already resemble Dockers commercials. While the bankers signing off on the idea may have envisioned cashmere blazers and gray flannels, they’re getting the Gap instead. Executives’ legs may no longer feel scratchy, but the belts will still feel tight.

“People have taken this dress-down Friday thing and turned it into couch-potato Friday,” said Paul Wilmot, a public relations executive. “These people just look terrible.”

Indeed, Wall Streeters, especially the ones still wearing suits who have nothing to worry about yet, can vouch for the lousy taste of their casually wardrobed colleagues. “Certain departments that really aren’t as client-focused have gone casual Fridays, and we are talking about people who basically take it way too far,” said a 24-year-old analyst at an old-fashioned corporate bank. “They’re wearing sweats. Like, maternity gear.”

“I think it depends on the level,” said a Merrill Lynch investment banker in his early 30s. “When you’re a really junior person, you have no money, and then your casual wardrobe isn’t as expensive. So with analysts, it’s a little sketchy. You see people in jeans, and in my opinion, that’s inappropriate. And I think the secretaries, sometimes, don’t really dress the way the firm would like them to dress.” The banker was dressed in standard business casual attire: slacks, blazer, black Johnston & Murphy lace-up shoes and a “kicking Armani shirt” (no undershirt).

The transition into casual wear is not any easier for women. “You’d get, like, long skirts, with, like, a T-shirt,” said Kate Hartwell, 24, who worked for two years as an analyst at Merrill. “It was weird, what the women would wear. I would always just wear a sweater and pants.” She recalled one male colleague who got it right. “He always wore this horrendous tie clip. But on casual day, he didn’t wear the tie clip.”

Despite firms’ attempts to offer guidelines for newly casual conference rooms and trading floors, the problem with dressing down is that there are so many options. The standard uniform has always been simple, despite variations according to taste and cost: two-piece suit, conservative dress shirt, conservative tie, black belt, black socks over the calf (intended to shield skin from view, even when legs were crossed), and black or dark brown shoes. It was a formula that worked, and, what’s more, it was flattering.

“The suit looks so good on everybody fat and so good on everybody skinny and so good on everybody who never worked out,” said Ms. Hollander. “I mean, it was always just a magnificent sort of idealization of your body, without the pain every time you got dressed. You wear a thing that hides the uneasy relationship between your top and your bottom, if there is one. A harmonizing effect was possible with suits.”

The simplicity, according to Mr. Boyer, was “what was great about getting dressed 50 years ago.”

Naturally, the basic ensemble has its accessories, which vary according to rank—cufflinks, for instance, which an investment banker tended not to wear until he became an associate, or suspenders, reserved for vice presidents, back-office lackeys or showboats, along with bow ties, loud colors and other attention-grabbing accouterments not appropriate for the junior staff. “You don’t want to bring attention to yourself,” said a 25-year-old analyst who worked at J. P. Morgan for several summers. “Because, inevitably, everyone says, ‘Who does he think he is?’ If you’re a big swinging dick, it’s perfectly fine. But if you just started, it doesn’t cast you in the right light.”

Still, there have always been levelers. What would Wall Street be without the Goldtoe sock? The Goldtoe, a nearly knee-high, yellow-toed dark sock with elastic so tight that it has a depilatory effect on a man’s leg, is the official sock of the Street. “It stays up, almost to the point of pain,” said the corporate finance analyst. “Older men on Wall Street have no leg hair below the knee, because there’s been no blood to the hair. When I wear my Goldtoes with khakis, it’s just kind of weird. It feels like I’m wearing pantyhose.” And wearing pantyhose is not conducive to mastering one’s universe if one is a man.

What Would Pierpont Do?

The need for more casual gear is not lost on high-end clothiers, many of whom have expanded their dress-down departments. George Longoria, assistant store manager of the Brooks Brothers Financial District shop, said that almost every week he hears of companies toning down their dress policies. “It has really helped guide our business down here,” he said. “We just renovated our store, going on about six to eight months ago, and expanded our casual wear. As a company, that’s our biggest expanding department.” Brooks Brothers also runs seminars for companies, helping them figure out how to do the casual thing.

Michael Ostrove, the general merchandise manager of Paul Stuart Inc., pointed out that while sales of suits had been flat in the last year or two: “Sport jackets [are] in double-digit-percentage growth … at least three or four seasons going strong now, more than double-digit. Same thing with sport shirts and knitwear and sweaters … but with the suits, it’s definitely a trick to hold the line.”

The line is eroding, as Silicon Valley sets the tone for business practice and culture in the new century. Wall Street is now forced to cater to them, rather than the other way around.

Kristin Lemkau, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan, said the firm’s new dress-down policy had a lot to do with employee input. “The idea of business-appropriate really gained momentum internally and was well accepted by both our employees and our clients,” she said. “With some employees, it’s actually an advantage not to wear a suit.”

“There’s something happening here, which is certainly related to the West Coast, but it may also be related to some subtle alteration of the generation, which is now in their 20s and 30s,” said Samuel Hayes, a professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School and investment banking scholar. “They are not just interested in business as a career. They want to have a quality of life, which doesn’t have to be postponed until they reach the top, and there may be some kind of subtle signal that’s being transmitted in that shift.”

Mr. Hayes was surprised that J.P. Morgan, of all places, would go casual. He recalled the firm’s founder, the legendarily gruff and formal J. Pierpont Morgan. “I’ve never seen a picture of him where he didn’t have a tie on,” he said. “Even when he was on his yacht or in his gardens, he was always dressed to the nines.”