Goldman’s ‘Flexible’ Dress Code Takes a Cue From Silicon Valley

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Are these the end times? David Solomon, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, announced this week that the bank would institute a “firmwide flexible dress code” for all of its employees, becoming the latest iconic company to reject strict regulations on workplace attire.

The image of hoodie-wearing prop traders at Goldman Sachs set off a flood of commentary blaming the millennials for the attack on sartorial virtue. Younger workers, the thinking goes, are such insufferable individualists that they can’t be bothered to conform to the fusty rules of their elders.

Never mind that Goldman employees have been encouraged to wear business casual for years, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Matt Levine pointed out. In fact, the policy change is just a blip in a decades-long erosion of corporate dress codes that reflects a much larger shift in American business. We’ve gone from corporate bureaucracies that favored regimentation and predictability to more nimble companies whose leaders place the greatest value on individualism and disruptive innovation. Everyone’s supposed to be an innovator now – and dress like one.

It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century, white-collar workers in large corporations wore formal clothing. The men who worked at Met Life in the late 1890s, for example, wore suits and ties; the women, who worked as typists, clerks, and stenographers, wore dark skirts, light-colored shirtwaists (blouses with collars and buttons).

They did so without being told. Most white-collar workers were small cogs in much larger bureaucratic machines who spent their days toiling away on regimented, predictable tasks, moving paper from one place to another. Many tasks that have been automated today depended instead on countless corporate drones. And they dressed the part.

As a consequence, male office workers displayed an utter lack of individuality in their attire, though managers sometimes signaled their elevated status by wearing stiff, high-necked collars, while ordinary clerks generally had lower collars that permitted greater freedom of movement.  But men’s clothing, the Boston Globe observed in 1912, was “characterized by its monotony, its ugliness, and its utter lack of individuality.”

Male office attire became even more predictable after World War II. The sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that the proliferation of office drones symbolized a profound shift in modern capitalist society. In “White Collar,” Mills speculated that the vast number of middle managers and salaried professionals toiling away in the nation’s bureaucracies had “upset the nineteenth-century expectation that society would be divided between entrepreneurs and wage workers.”

Instead, the 1950s and early 1960s were defined by stasis and conformity. As Mills put it, the “twentieth-century white collar man has never been as independent as the farmer used to be, nor as hopeful of the main chance as the businessman. He is always somebody’s man.” For Mills, “the decline of the free entrepreneur and the rise of the dependent employee on the American scene” was a strange and troubling development.

Corporate conformity extended to even the most cutting-edge companies. IBM, a tech pioneer but also a giant, bureaucratic, hierarchical corporation famously required male engineers to wear white shirts, black ties, dark gray suits and starched collars. They all looked alike -- by design.

In the late 1960s, a very different version of the tech industry was taking shape. Some of the most dynamic players in this scene hailed from the counterculture, and a spirit of play prevailed in the network of small companies that began multiplying at this time. They self-consciously rebelled against the kind of uniformity that IBM expected of its employees.

The chip manufacturer Intel, founded in 1968, was typical of this new crop of companies. As one historian of the computing industry has observed, it kept its organizational structure flat, eliminated middle managers, and encouraged engineers to be entrepreneurial and individualistic. “There were no dress codes, no hierarchies, no protocols.” All employees would be agents of change.

The trend intensified in the 1970s, with the birth of another crop of iconic companies. Leslie Berlin, in her history of Silicon Valley, tells the story of how Mike Markkula, one the first big tech investors, paid a visit to two young men working out of their garage. He found them “dressed in Levi’s and casual shirts -- as if they planned to repair a car, not meet with a millionaire.” Their names were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Other companies, from Atari to Sun Microsystems, eschewed dress codes. Microsoft, which is today viewed as the stodgy establishment, cultivated a casual work environment where even the founders let it all hang out. Judging from a photo from 1978, the unofficial company dress code was equal parts stoner, serial killer and surfer.

But that was part of the appeal. These guys – and they were mostly men – presented themselves as disruptive innovators. And they succeeded, radically redefining the nation’s economy through the tech revolution. But their success allowed the elimination of many of the white-collar workers that Mills had pitied: middle managers, engineers and others, who could now be replaced with computers, or have their labor outsourced to other countries via the Internet.

This contributed to the decline of the bureaucratic corporation filled with many layers of salaried employees, each spending their entire careers with the company. As the need to cultivate uniformity disappeared, these revamped, slimmer companies embraced a new credo -- “Innovate or Die” -- and looked to the Silicon Valley wunderkinds for inspiration. As a result, companies began to self-consciously adopt practices associated with the tech sector, including, of course, dropping dress codes. This would “empower” employees, or so the thinking went.

Now Goldman has officially joined the movement. Solomon has ostentatiously cultivated an image of himself as a disruptive, iconoclastic leader – complete with a side gig as DJ D-Sol, spinner of electronic dance music. His message is clear: He’s going to break the shackles of tradition and usher in disruptive change.

Maybe. But it’s worth asking whether these newly liberated employees are actually getting the freedom to dress the way they want – or whether the old dress code has simply been replaced by a new one that requires you to dress like Mark Zuckerberg to succeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

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