Clothes, now there’s a thing. I admit to being amused by the brouhaha that ensued after smooth-faced Facebook genius Mark Zuckerberg astonished the world by, ahem, wearing a hooded sweatshirt to a meeting last week. Grown men with wobbly paunches, red braces and pinstriped suits swooned. Others became puce in the face and blustered incomprehensibly. It was as if somebody had exposed themselves in a Jane Austen novel.
Look, you wanted to say, once the smelling salts had been administered, it’s true that he might not have a cabinet full of well-polished cufflinks at home, but in the game which the Wall Streeters have devoted their lives to – the accumulation of money – Zuckerberg is, you know, doing better. He doesn’t have anything to prove.
I mean, the bloke is floating a business for $100 billion (€78.3 billion). A hundred billion dollars! He can come dressed as Dita Von Teese if he likes, or in his pyjamas. Actually, now I type that, I remember he did once actually turn up to a meeting with potential investors in his PJs. You can say that he isn’t taking it seriously if you like, but 1) he must be pretty lucky if he has built a $100 billion business while not taking it seriously, 2) imagine if he did take it seriously! and 3) honestly, who gives a hoot?
Maybe the better question is exactly why people give such a hoot, as they obviously do. Some Americans put it down to a clash between Silicon Valley’s free-wheeling, gone-surfin’, sandals-and-shorts culture and the stuffy old East Coast’s buttoned-down, shiny-shoed way of life. But it goes deeper than that. Clothes are some of the clearest signals that we give about ourselves. If someone wears a suit, that immediately tells you a lot about their outlook; they will turn up on time and do as they are told. And there are refinements within the class of suit-wearers that only other suit-wearers understand. For example, in the City brown shoes are met with howls of derision. It’s said that the top people at Goldman Sachs wear Ferragamo loafers and that a first-year who wore them would be laughed out of the building.
The reason the Wall Street fuddy-duddies were so angry was that Zuckerberg was refusing to play their game. He wasn’t letting them read him. And he wasn’t letting these snobs get all superior at this upstart, wasn’t giving them the opportunity to laugh at his gauche choice of shoe, or tie, or cuff-style. He was opting out. Also, it was a show of power. Those bankers and brokers would never normally deign to have a meeting with someone in jeans and a hoodie, but Zuckerberg is such a big cheese that they have to. His choice of clothes was anything but casual.
Business suits are interesting pieces of kit. They first evolved of military uniforms, when Savile Row tailors were making civvies for returning soldiers. Perhaps it’s not so odd, then, that business is infused with metaphors of battle and domination. In the old days when business was all about controlling trade routes and state power, pseudo-military kit probably seemed right. Now some of the biggest western businesses – Facebook, Twitter, those in computer games or sport – are about play rather than power. That hoodie was a sign of the times.