Elite’s unwritten style rules mean brown shoes & loud ties a no-no for banking jobs, study concludes

© Paul Hackett
Graduates who wear brown shoes, ill-fitting suits, loud ties or white shirts are missing out on top jobs in the City of London, new research by the government’s Social Mobility Commission has found.

The report, ‘Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking,’ says employers use unspoken dress codes to weed out the “wrong” type of person in City job interviews.

“Issues relating to dress may seem both superficial and relatively simple for individuals from all backgrounds to adopt,” the report says.

“However, interviewees suggested that they do play a material role in the selection process as demonstration as ‘fit.’

One anonymous banker was quoted as saying applicants would “stick out like a sore thumb” if they did not look comfortable in a suit.

“If you’ve got the wrong cut of suit, if you are wearing the wrong shoes, or tie, if you look awkward in a suit, then you’re done before you start.”

Another executive said students from non-privileged backgrounds often have the wrong haircut or wear an oversized suit.

“They don’t know which tie to wear,” the executive said.

Brown shoes were largely considered “unacceptable” for British investment bankers, the report found. However, employers were relaxed about their European counterparts wearing them.

Alan Milburn, the commission’s chairman, told the Evening Standard: “Bright, working-class kids are being systematically locked out of top jobs in investment banking because they may not attend a small handful of elite universities or understand arcane culture rules.

“It is shocking, for example, that some investment bankers still judge candidates on whether they wear brown shoes with a suit, rather than on their skills and potential,” he added.

Clothing was just one element of a wider projection of “cultural competence” including background, family connections and foreign travel, the report says.

Some aspiring bankers could be ruled as unfit for the job based on speech, accent or mannerisms, even when they had excellent technical expertise, the report found.

The report, written by four academics on behalf of the commission, made no mention of dress codes for women.

“Where issues relating to dress were raised by interviewees, it was almost always in relation to male business attire, underlining the strong association between investment banking and masculinity.”

The report also looked at the life sciences industry. It found the profile of “professional-level scientific jobs” was skewed towards graduates from relatively privileged backgrounds.