There was a Depression saying about how bad things could get: "Tough times make a monkey eat red pepper." It was a time when a lot of people were glad to get Spam for supper, before it became the term for junk e-mail. Thin soup was the special of the day.
So were hand-me-down clothes. Now tough times give a new meaning to dressing up. Casual dress at the office is fading swiftly into history. T-shirts and open-collars were fine for a bull market, but bear market means baring less - less neck, less wrist, less elbow and less ankle.
Bear Stearns Cos., one of Wall Street's biggest brokerage houses, has reversed a two-year-old policy of allowing informal dress. Starting today (Sept. 30) a man must wear a suit and tie. Even casual Fridays will require a jacket. Dockers and running shoes suited the dot.com boom, when dressing down, like driving a Bentley instead of a Rolls, was a sign of diffidence. Now money gets new respect.
A memo to all employees says it plainly: "It's important, particularly in these difficult economic times, that every aspect of our business, including our dress, reflect our ongoing commitment to our clients and our business."
Last year Bear Stearns slashed 830 jobs, 7.5 percent of its workforce, "the biggest cuts in the company's history," according to Financial News. When Wall Street securities firms cut more than 54,000 jobs in 18 months, wearing a suit is not an exorbitant price to pay for a paycheck.
Brooks Brothers, across the street from Bear Stearns offices in Manhattan, quickly offered discounts to the brokerage workers looking for a new wardrobe. In fact, Brooks Brothers, which shed its conservative image by offering ice-cream-colored shirts, may return to the dark three-button suit that was the Wall Street standard of the '50s.
Prewashed, torn up, cut-off jeans were fine when a man knew that his stockbroker had bought them at fashionable prices, but not now, when they're likely to be mistaken for the real thing. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. demands the return of the business suit, and Deutsche Bank AG's global markets group tells its men to nix the "clubbing attire." Men who rode with the boom are now shrinking their lifestyle, or at least stuffing some of it in a closet.
The rich have always been able to slum without losing face. But dressing down requires confidence and the slumping market changes assumptions about the schlumpy dress. Jeans, no matter how absurd the price tag, no longer cut it at the office.
It's possible that dressing up may bring back manners. Men with less in their vest pockets might discover that nicer comes with neater. Insecurity breeds humility. Courtesy on the job may spill over into courting and this could change dating dynamics.
Men had the edge in the '90s because more men than women made out in the stock market boom. The desirability of men forced women to compete for male attention and soon there were all those books, stories and movies about men behaving badly. Men may now find that if they can't work on the merger with a big company, they may be more inclined to merge in a marriage.
Of course, the dress suit can't perform magic. The downturn in the economy compels Alpha males to cut back on the ambitious goals that once generated adrenaline by the gallon. Holding on doesn't stimulate the aggressive instinct that climbing does. Reduced challenge may even lead to what a medical scientist calls the "irritable male syndrome."
Dr. Gerald Lincoln of the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh reports that men who feel stress - and who on Wall Street doesn't? - may require hormone replacement therapy because such men can experience a drop in their testosterone levels. Lower testosterone levels lead to moodiness and temper tantrums, which the scientist compares to a woman's PMS or premenstrual syndrome. (You could call it LTS for lower testosterone syndrome.)
Of course this theory is quite controversial because Dr. Lincoln's initial research was based on observations of rams (the male animal of barnyard and forest, not the Super Bowl champs). He found that rams rich in testosterone happily butted heads with each other all day long, but became nervous, agitated and irritable when testosterone levels dropped. No day play at all.
Hormone replacement for the human male requires a hefty dose of testosterone and among the side effects are skin blemishes. Women should beware of that nice guy in the dark suit with blemishes - and remember that more than clothes make the man.