Tricky Dress Codes

I've been thinking about an article in the Wall Street Journal this past week about tacit dress codes for women in finance ("Wall Street Women: Dress Code of Silence"). Relevant bits:

In an age where the rules of professional dressing are constantly shifting, and women have much more freedom than in decades past, there is still one area where there are more unspoken rules than ever: finance. While their male counterparts may sport "business casual" khakis, many women on Wall Street feel they must toe a careful and conservative line. They often feel obliged to dress up in order to command authority. These women still struggle not to be defined by traditionally feminine pastimes, like dressing well. The result: They don't talk about fashion openly, for fear of appearing frivolous.

. . .

Casual events often call for chinos and an Izod for men. But women who arrive in golf clothes are likely to strike the wrong note. This came home for Lisa Tames, a banker at Citigroup in New York who favors practical looks from Ellen Tracy and Ann Taylor, when she recently attended a conference. The dress code was casual, but a female colleague raised a few eyebrows by wearing slim green capri pants. "It wasn't projecting her ability in her field," recalls Ms. Tames, who says she rarely dresses down.

I don' t know a professional woman who doesn't struggle with this issue to some degree. I wondered, though, if this article made things sound too black and white, so I talked to a vice president of a highly regarded Manhattan hedge fund. Her response:

"Wall Street Women" is a very broad -- too broad -- term.  There are bankers and traders and money managers, all of whom have different dressing needs.  It largely depends on whom you're dealing with as your clientele.

The traders / salespeople in general can dress more fashionably.  Hedge fund folks dress pretty casually as a rule, and don't mind if their salespeople are trendier.  We have one saleswoman who is always dressed in Diane von Furstenberg dresses, for example, and it doesn't bother anyone.

I think bankers tend to be more conservative in dress, because of whom they're dealing with -- if you're dealing with a Midwestern CFO or a Japanese company or whatever, you want to look more formal.

In general, my own view has always been that one need not look stuffy and formal, but it's better to stay in the muted color palette.

Interesting that she notes the color palette. In the story above about the capri pants at the conference, I suspect the issue was more the color than the style. My rule of thumb for women in a professional setting: you want people to notice what you think and say, not what you wear. Green capri pants are going to be eye-catching even in a casual work setting, whereas tan capris might not have raised eyebrows.

My other rule of thumb for women: When in doubt, overdress. That's true across the pond as well. A London-based woman with experience in investment banking, venture capital, and asset management tells me: "I do think men take women more seriously when they are 'dressed up' as opposed to casual. Jeans for example -- a lot of men wear them but women don't get the same respect when wearing jeans."

Also keep in mind that there are tacit rules you just have to deduce by looking around and figuring things out through trial and error, and those rules vary from office to office. I remember showing up at my law firm as a first-year associate -- this was in Los Angeles, where dress codes were already pretty casual compared to the East Coast or Midwest. Our dress code was business casual Monday through Thursday, and casual on Fridays. So on my first Friday I showed up in well-cut jeans, a blouse, a tailored jacket, nice shoes, and an Hermes scarf. I was quickly pulled aside by a more senior associate and sent back home to change -- "No jeans!" I thought that was pretty silly, when I looked a lot more put together than the guys with their polos and chinos, but at the same time I was grateful that someone had told me what the office norms were.

A different but related story: I was at the Boston Symphony Orchestra last night -- world-class musicians, conducted by James Levine. Doesn't get any better than that. Dress codes were on my mind because of that article, and I noticed that while the male musicians were all in white tie tuxedos, a lot of the female musicians were dressed in what could have been Chico's separates from the mall, as if they'd been on their way to brunch or a faculty meeting.  Women have fought hard to make it into world-class symphonies -- I wish they'd dress appropriately. If James Levine can bother to wear a tux with his sweating and sciatica, you'd think the women could bother with formal wear too. I'm not talking about an Anne-Sophie Mutter strapless look (talk about clothes threatening to overshadow talent), which is easier to pull off as a soloist than an orchestra musician, but even a suit would be a step up (see Hilary Hahn).