Unbuttoned: Bankers in the Age of Bernie: Do They Need Camouflage?




Damian Lewis, left, portrays a T-shirt-wearing hedge fund chief in “Billions.” Credit Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME, via Associated Press

He came, he lost, but his rhetoric continues.

I am speaking, of course, of Senator Bernie Sanders, who may have ceded the Democratic primary in New York to Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, but who has made a very visible part of the city into the punching bag of the presidential campaign. Put simply: Bankers are having a tough time in the public discourse these days.

Mr. Sanders has built a platform on their villainy. Over the weekend, at a block party in Brooklyn, Mrs. Clinton called out “the greed and recklessness of Wall Street,” and declared, “I take a back seat to no one in taking them on.” Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican candidate who used a hefty loan from his wife’s former employer, Goldman Sachs, to finance his 2012 Senate race, has labeled the institution a hotbed of “crony capitalism.” And so on.

You would think it would be enough to have them — whomever this mythic “them” may be — don sackcloth and ashes and sneak around in the shadows so no one could identify them by the uniform of their profession. Which, if you accept the premise that we use our wardrobe to signal our allegiance to a group (personal, political or professional), raises the question: What does it mean to look like a banker in the age of Bernie?

After all, the last time the financial world was so loudly derided — during the recession of 2008 and 2009 — there was a knock-on effect in the men’s wear world, and certain obvious totems of Wall Street style (the broad, structured shoulders; the patterned ties; the Ferragamo shoes) fell out of favor. According to a banker at Goldman Sachs, the idea was to play down any signifiers of employment, lest they invite negative repercussions.

This was around the same time the luxury shopping site Net-a-Porter started offering deliveries in brown paper bags so those still able to indulge their consumer urges could not be identified. There was a sense that it was unseemly (and sometimes, in the Occupy Wall Street days, maybe dangerous) to represent the 1 percent.


Leonardo DiCaprio symbolized 1990s excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Credit Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures

Yet this time around, no such camouflage has seemed necessary.

That may be, however, less a gesture of defiance, or the result of the fact that Mr. Sanders and Mr. Cruz had pretty poor primary showings in New York (they are still preaching their bad-banker gospel, after all, and their competitors are being notably circumspect about their ties to the financial sector), than a reflection of a certain reality: The stereotype of the “banker” that is currently being kicked around no longer exists — or doesn’t exist in any overarching sense. It may make an easy target, but it’s a straw man.

The image was created in 1987 by the perfect storm of Tom Wolfe’s novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” and Oliver Stone’s film “Wall Street,” and proved astonishingly durable. And though it has been perpetrated to a certain extent in popular culture, it bears less and less resemblance to actual fact.

Indeed, in conversations with several financial professionals, the consistent reaction was “no one dresses that way anymore.” Rather, the adjectives most used to describe their clothing were “rumpled” and “understated.”

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