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Dressed to Invest: A Century of Fashion


Suits have always been a staple in the investment banker’s wardrobe. Well-tailored, usually on the expensive side, and a symbol of the profession.

Despite recent relaxations of dress codes at banks such as Goldman Sachs, it seems unlikely that the relationship between suit and banker will wane anytime soon.

If you’re looking to dress for a job in an investment bank, those in the know would suggest a ‘timeless’ suit – something sophisticated that avoids trends.

However, just how ‘timeless’ can a suit be? IB Insider explores the changes to the investment banking uniform over the last century.

The fashion choices of financier J.P. Morgan were typical of the investment banking style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Morgan dominated Wall Street, and his power-dressing ways reflected his wealth and influence.

The style mainly consisted of black, three-piece suits and white shirts, sometimes worn with a contrasting waistcoat or trousers.

J.P. Morgan, 1902.

A black coat, striped trousers and bowler hat, which had come to replace the traditional top hat, soon became synonymous with businessmen working in the city.

In fact, although pinstripes are widely associated with 1980s investment bankers, Victorian-era banks ‘each had their own stripe, varying in shade and weight, that identified who worked for which’.

By the roaring 20s, however, the fashion choices of the wealthy investment bankers became more open and colourful. The bolder businessman may even have dared to wear patterned suits, shirts or ties, according to Forbes.

This change in fashion reflected the general social and economic modernisation brought about after the First World War. For investment bankers and the rest of the upper classes, their clothing choices reflected their prosperity and a booming stock market.

The 1920s – an era of sophistication. Image: Gentleman’s Journal

The infamous Wall Street Crash, the huge economic downturn, and the subsequent widespread sombre mood, made the 1930s a sartorially less colourful decade than its predecessor. Without the flair of the 1920s, suits returned to their more traditional colours.

By the 1950s, dark suits and ties, worn with white shirts and pocket squares ‘were practically a requirement in business’. This uniform was everywhere, according to Forbes, with businessmen conforming to the same styles worn by their bosses.

The 1960s and 1970s saw an overhaul in women’s workplace fashion. The traditional outfits of dresses or blouses and skirts were replaced with suits in the 1960s, and trousers became much more popular in the 1970s.

Although there were relatively few women in investment banking during this period, for businesswomen generally, the trouser suit came to be a symbol for the fight for gender equality.

The 70s embraced the flare pants

For men, the 1980s saw more changes to their investment banking uniform than in the two decades prior. As in the roaring 20s, financial success meant a more colourful wardrobe.

The prosperity of the investment banking sector in particular during the 80s led to bankers’ (in)famous ‘reputation for power and flair’.

With cash to splash on designer suits and flashy ties, look no further than characters such as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, or more recently Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, to see how power dressing was done by investment bankers in this era.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street

The New York Times describes the 80s uniform of ‘blue pinstripes, shoulder pads, wide lapels and a red or yellow power tie’ as the ‘psychological armour’ needed to survive in the fierce environment.

Nonetheless, previously-seen favourites in investment banking’s fashion history have strong connotations with this decade. As well as pinstripes (or aptly-named banker stripes), bowler hats were still worn until the mid-1980s.

The 1990s generally introduced more casual clothing to offices, with GQ stating that at the end of the 20th century the suit had ‘lost the fight against business casual’. However, for investment bankers, suits have continued to be required at work until much more recently.

The 90s ‘baggy look’. Credit: Armani

But then, the 2000s brought the well-known fall of the investment bank. The financial crisis put an end to the ‘greed is good’ mindset and ostentatious sartorial habits of the 1980s and 90s.

Investment bankers had to reassess their image to reflect the difficult global financial situation.

Could this be why we haven’t seen the return of the pinstripe suit to investment banks? The link between those suits and the notorious flair and excess of the 80s could still be too fresh a memory for some bankers.

Present day – Business casual attire

Even without the pinstripes, as a modern-day investment banker you’ll have a lot more leeway when it comes to dressing for work compared with your predecessors.

You can probably leave the bowler hat at home, though.

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