The Un-Banker Look

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One of the rare financial benefits of going freelance: It slashes your dry cleaning bills. That's what first occurred to me on reading "When No One Wants to Look Like a Banker" in the New York Times Styles section. It explains:

While double-digit declines have hit much of the retail sector, one of the few pieces of good news is one of the most surprising. In a reversal of every recession in the last 100 years, figures show that men have not cut back on buying clothes as much as women have. They're not buying power suits -- they're replacing them.

"I have guys coming in here saying, 'I don't want to look like a banker anymore,' " said Eric Goldstein, an owner of Jean Shop, a premium denim store in the meatpacking district. He is now dispensing advice on how to look like a "creative professional."

Meanwhile in the Business section, the Times reports the continuing troubles of a flagship 122-year-old American men's clothing manufacturer, Hartmarx, makers of a top brand, Hickey-Freeman. Why hasn't the new trend helped them? Whatever the answer, it's refreshing to see a break from months of frugality journalism, and a new creed to replace the restored formality that in turn, not so long ago, ended Casual Fridays. But one question still troubles me. What happens to the age-old principle of dressing for the job you want?

Does the new style mean that all men now desire to be "creative professionals"? Those jobs are not so secure, either. Do employers really want bond traders to look like art directors or vice versa? And are financial people really wise to look creative? Investment bankers' critics on the Left have been charging that they have been too original. These critics want to make banking "dull again." (I'm agnostic on this notion; see my post on the Conservative of Catastrophe.)

Another problem of the new creative look, at least outside the arts and fashion, is that so many of today's most coveted careers may reward the very style scorned so emphatically by the article's sources. Consider political and civil service positions in Washington, now a growth sector again. And contemplate the garb of the top officials, at least the males, in the Times's own photo gallery of the Obama administration. Or read the assessment of the Washington Post's Marc Fisher. Washington remains America's capital of stodge.

An exhibition at the New York Public Library two years ago documented the origins of today's suits in the tailored padding worn under medieval plate armor. The advantage of conservative clothing, protective anonymity, is likely to endure.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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