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How to dress as a woman in investment banking now

Sartorial correctness isn’t necessarily easy when you’re a woman in an investment bank. If you consult UBS’s ‘dress code’ (since withdrawn), the woman in finance should never display her toenails, never wear a shirt that’s ‘tight against the chest’ or a coloured bra beneath a white shirt, and should always wear a nicely folded necktie in the style of a cabin assistant. And if you listen to Nomura, you should never wear a skirt with a deep slit, or ‘gay colour nail polish.’  

If this guidance is insufficient, there is – fortunately – additional help at hand. Heidy Rehman worked as an equity research analyst at Citi for 13 before quitting just as promotion to MD was beckoning. Three years later and she’s running her own ‘ethical’ fashion label, Rose & Willard, which aims to appeal to professional women looking for quality clothing without a designer price-tag, and is designed and made in the UK.

Similarly, Libby Hart, a former vice president at Deutsche Bank and director at SocGen, quit banking three years ago to devote herself to dressing professional women. You can see her collection of ‘office appropriate workwear’ here.

Suffice to say, despite ongoing efforts by investment banks and other financial service organisations, gender parity on pay and opportunities remains a distant aim in the sector. Financial services is far from alone in failing to address this - as Audi's Superbowl advert Daughters has been causing a fuss in the US. The ad calls for more gender diversity, and yet Audi's board is entirely male. Moreover, entirely predictably, Trump has told his female staff to "dress like a woman" and follow the example of counsellor Kellyanne Conway.

This is what the two women say about the appropriate dress code when you’re a woman who works in finance.

1. It’s harder when you’re senior

“The more senior you get, the more you want to be taken seriously, but if you put too much effort into your appearance, women in front office roles can often mistaken for a secretary,” says Rehman. “You can’t wear a designer suit every day, but following high-street trends looks cheap.”

2. Avoid high street trends

“Following the latest trends means that you’ll be constantly buying cheap, bad quality clothing that will fit badly and inevitably sit in your wardrobe most of the time,” Rehman says. “Look for something timeless and high quality.”

3. Invest in some ‘proper’ dresses 

Hart refers to her clothes as “investment pieces.” Costing around £200 for a dress, they’re not cheap, but Hart says – as is to be expected – that they’re worth it. Moreover, you need a few of them. “It’s easy to slip into a routine of wearing two or three outfits on rotation, especially when you’re starting at 6.45am. But if you really dress up, it will give you a confidence boost. It’s sad but true that you will be judged by what you wear in a masculine environment like banking.”

4. Go for quality

The last thing you want to be wearing when you’re advancing up the ranks in investment banking is a pencil skirt and cheap blazer, says Rehman. Yes, you can’t wear a designer suit every day, but investing in a well-tailored suit that you can go back to again and again is important.

“Hunt out quality – that means premium, not necessarily luxury. You need to focus on fit and quality of material, not just the label. Invest in something that will last,” she says.

5. Get the blouse right 

"If you’re out and about speaking to clients, the last thing you need is to be restricted into keeping your jacket on throughout the day. “Your blouse needs to speak for itself,” says Rehman. “It needs to be professional and high-quality. No sleeveless blouses and nothing that reveals too much cleavage.”

6. You need sleeves

When you’re shopping for seasonal clothes to wear to work in banking,you need to remember that every season in the office is fundamentally the same thanks to air conditioning. It’s just outside that’s different.

“The summer work wardrobe is a real challenge – it’s freezing in the office and boiling on the Tube,” says Hart. All her dresses have sleeves to allow wearers to survive the office micro climate.

7. Cleavage should be constrained

Don’t even think about displaying cleavage. A v-neck top with a tiny “hint at cleavage” is fine, says Hart. Too many people go lower. “You see a lot of men ogling women’s cleavage in meetings. As a senior woman, that will undermine you.”

8. Skirts should be of a decent length

There’s no need to show some leg. “If your skirt is a bit short you will spend your whole life trying to pull it down,” says Hart. “You shouldn’t be worrying about what you wear all day long. You want to look at good as you can. It’s all about looking amazing whilst looking demure, that’s the key.”

9. But embrace your femininity

It’s not the 1990s and you don’t have to wear a pant suit and in a world where banks are at least admitting to unconscious bias in the recruitment and promotion cycle, don’t try and emulate your male colleagues.

“Dressing in a feminine manner is actually quite empowering,” says Rehman. “We’re seeing a big trend towards smart casual among women in both banking and management consulting – dressing professionally doesn’t mean wearing a suit every day.

10. Focus on fit

“Precision is the most important thing when choosing a professional outfit, and again this is down to quality of materials and fit,” says Rehman. “Most women quickly try something on in the shop, think that it’s OK, take it home and then never wear it again. Most women only wear 20% of their wardrobe.”

11. Heels are your friend

Think Teresa May. “I’m pro-shoes,” says Hart. “The higher the better. The extra height gives you gravitas and a better posture.”

12. Always ensure a confident stride

In an industry where client-interaction means projecting the right image, the last thing you want is to be tottering on very high heels, says Rehman. That said, she recommends some form of heel over flat shoes.

“Stick with heels, but make sure they’re a sensible height. You need to maintain a confident stride,” she says. Lastly, absolutely avoid anything that exposes your toes.

Photo credit: POP Toys Office Lady Pant Suit Set by Edward Liu is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AUTHORPaul Clarke and Sarah Butcher Insider Comment
  • Ch
    20 January 2023

    This is a good article, but dresscodes for women in banking have changed slightly in the last years. There’s definitely room for more colours and casual or feminine clothing that isn’t just a skirt or a suit. And of course heels are nice to wear if you’re comfortable in them, but most people would prefer to be able to walk between meetings without hurting! If anyone is missing more details on what bags to wear (it’s definitely hard to find bags that are big enough, look professional and don’t have any in-your-face logos), check out the investment banking handbag dresscode guide for women here

  • Ch
    31 August 2017

    There were actually a few good tips here. When I first started out in banking, I was the only woman in my department, and I struggled to find out what to wear.

    Skirt suits and blouses/tops work well almost anywhere, but I usually prefer a dress with a blazer myself. Understand that dress codes can vary greatly from bank to bank, and that you should always opt for the more conservative outfits until you get a feel for your particular employer.

    I don't agree that it's harder to dress for a banking job the older you get. I'd actually say you have more options and can wear more fashionable outfits when you become more senior.

    I've seen so many women asking the same questions (and I did myself when I started my first investment banking internship many years ago), so I wrote a longer post about it here

  • El
    31 August 2016

    Come on, mistaken for a secretary? How about a streetwalker? "How to dress as a woman in banking if you don't want to be mistaken for a secretary" such a stupid title. Be nice to secretaries, good ones are worth their weight in gold!! It seems that the role of "secretary" is the last and final "leftover" from more misogynistic times, alongside with nurses and teachers who get paid peanuts as well. In private equity I often saw young associates performing tasks that any secretary could do. The difference? The associates were young men hired from ivy league schools and it helped if they were related to someone "important". Finance is the least fun and the most misogynistic field to work in. This article is proof.

  • Ja
    13 May 2016

    Yes, can't believe that advice about heels. Tell that to my physio who explicitly told me to stop wearing them because, I quote, "Oh my, we were told this would happen when you wore heels for years but I've never actually seen it...You're got the tightest calves I've ever seen..." You would think that was a compliment, but he was actually explaining why I was teetering on the edge of rupturing my Achilles tendon. Moderation, people, moderation.

  • Tr
    31 March 2016

    This is actually the worst advice I've ever read. Heels that are good for posture?! I mean come on.
    The article (yes i'm going there) doesn't even try to say to women, 'Hey, so you work in a crap, misogynistic industry. Why don't you try to change that terribly flawed, Victorian psychology by being a woman and showing that you can be powerful and feminine at the same time? Not by becoming a giant monster in heels who has to strap in her breasts so that she won't get ogled in the boardroom. Yuck. Also Theresa May is not someone you should hold up to any sort of style standard and you didn't even spell it correctly - her policies are flawed and her dress style is whack.

    Hey, all you women out there, be yourself, be powerful, don't dress like a slut, don't be undermined by the pervs in your office, don't be afraid of floral (or sleeveless floral, god forbid), but things that make you feel confident and use that. Also speak to HR if anyone ogles anything that they shouldn't be. In my conservative financial services firm I've worn a purple jumpsuit from the 70s and still rocked out over $1m. #canttouchthis

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