When a vest is more than a vest

A viral Instagram account satirizes the fashion sense of finance bros, but reveals how we conceive of the professional class.

Three men cross an intersection, under the header “‘Chadestrians always have the right of way’ — Chad, Chád, & Chäd.” They are young, they are analyst-types, and they are all dressed in matching navy slacks, grey vests, and blue, collared shirts. They work in finance; they may dream of the Hamptons; they definitely own Allbirds.

Amazing start-up idea. #midtownuniform

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Reliably delivered into my Instagram feed every few days, @MidtownUniform provides consistent comic relief. Founded by an anonymous Los Angeles transplant bemused by repetitive Murray Hill fashions, it spotlights the sartorial choices of the New York financial sector. Featuring Chads, Hunters, Brocks, Blakes, and Bretts stomping around Midtown Manhattan in their uniform of Patagonia vest and standard button-down, the account devotedly (and satirically) documents Midtown fauna in their natural habitat.

Taken on its own, the account revels in its self-referential comedy, the power of trend mentality, and the sheer mockery of bro-culture. Yet the account is not alone. Beyond its 100,000 (and growing) followers, the Midtown Uniform is just a single data point on the broader phenomena of Uniform Culture, and a reflection of a Western culture obsessed with distinctions, exclusion, and tacit acceptance of the status quo. Though it has been covered by various media outlets — The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Vogue — something remains unsaid: the Midtown Uniform is a reaction against its sartorial antecedent, the business suit, and a further move towards an aesthetic that genders professional culture as masculine.

For centuries, people have used clothing to distinguish themselves from — and to relate to — other groups. The Midtown Uniform similarly distinguishes a unique class of bankers, financiers, analysts, and their ilk, allowing them to stylically dominate an entire neighborhood of Manhattan. “I think with the nomenclature of ‘uniform’ people think they know what one is, but they don't,” said Kelly Colvin, a professor of cultural history at Brown University. “People think that the military has a uniform, but we actually all wear uniforms because we’re all signaling at various times what and who we are.”

Ermahgerdd itss Ferrlll #midtownuniform 📷: @mpatrickshea

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In earlier periods of history, clothing carefully demarcated each stratum of the social hierarchy, often aided by sumptuary laws, which dictated what materials, colours, and garments could be worn by each class. In late Tudor England, for example, especially as it became popular to wear emblems and dynastic symbols, restricting clothing was a way of restricting social confusion, greed, and foreign influence. According to Richard Thompson Ford, a law professor at Stanford University who is writing a book on dress codes, these laws “were all about ensuring that you could tell someone's social status or social position by what they were wearing.”

Although official legislation disappeared, the mindset remains. The emergence of the business suit as a default uniform for the workforce over the course of the 20th century “signaled a certain kind of sober-minded, practical business-like mentality that was the new ideal of the enlightenment and that defined virtuous citizenship for everyone...But at the same time, it's pretty easy to tell by the quality of fabric, cut, which people are at the top of the hierarchy, which are at the bottom.”

The Midtown Uniform emerges as the business suit’s unassuming son. It eschews the uptight, starched, Old Money past, favoring agility, prowess, and progress, and not totally caring what you’re wearing. The Patagonia vest, traditionally connoting outdoorsiness, signals leisure time, athleticism, groundedness, and says, as Colvin put it, “I'm a serious business person, but I also do other things that are very masculine.” You hike, you bike, you weekend in Nature. Even if you don’t, you are privileged or savvy enough to suggest it and, frankly, to own a pricey vest that remains unused for its intended purpose.

Within the office, the Midtown Uniform represents a certain attained status by not needing to wear the suit. Having reached the upper echelons of hierarchy, the Uniformer is no longer client-facing, or there to serve. “If you're wearing a business suit, you might be mistaken for a bank manager, which is actually a service position with respect to other people,” suggested Ford. “If you're wearing a Patagonia vest, you're the one who's doing analysis.” If clothing consciously denotes hierarchy, the Midtown Uniform formalizes finance — a historically influential and powerful industry — as a masculine field. In that sense, the Midtown Uniform may just be the most exclusionary uniform to hit Midtown since stark mid-century sartorial gender divides (think about cinched waists and full skirts versus the grey flannel suit, or Peggy versus Don). Certain firms like Goldman Sachs have been pilloried for dress codes requiring women to wear heels, or to keep their hair long, but the Midtown Uniform represents something far more insidious. Where the stratification between heels and brogues, skirts and suits is visually obvious, with the Midtown Uniform, you need to be of the culture in order to understand and adopt it.

“It’s yet again a new definition of male sartorial power that women are unable to respond to. It feels frustrating. The closer women get, the more creative men get.”
Kelly Colvin, professor of cultural history at Brown University

If you haven’t already guessed, there is no feminine version of the Midtown Uniform. Women appear only on @MidtownUniform as accessories to the uniform, additional punchlines to an already established joke. Mostly, women appear next to Uniformers on the subway, partly to illustrate how distinct Uniformers are from other classes of human. In other cases, women are alluded to, to demonstrate the utter bro-ness of their “baes”: “When she texts you that her roommates are gone for the weekend,” grins Trey as he flies apartment-wards on a skateboard. But it is not simply that women do not appear, it’s that they cannot appear. In a singular image of a woman in a vest, she pairs her seemingly off-brand gilet with a skirt and tall socks, in an unsuccessful act of mimicry. Women are utterly excluded from the ease and privilege (for it is a privilege) of donning the uniform vest, shirt, and slacks.

The Midtown Uniform narrows an already narrow aesthetic vision of power. Though it’s an imperfect solution, a woman can adopt a feminine version of the power suit, for example. But there is no way for a woman to emulate the Midtown Uniform. “It’s yet again a new definition of male sartorial power that women are unable to respond to. It feels frustrating. The closer women get, the more creative men get,” added Colvin.

Off their forthcoming album My Dad’s Boat #midtownuniform

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If you disagree, try to imagine a woman donning precisely these garments. In a literal way, she can wear the items — she, like her colleagues, may even have been gifted a vest by her firm — but imagine the myriad, patriarchally-entrenched responses. “There's an inappropriate appropriation of masculinity by people who wear that, and so it's like butch, dowdy,” said Colvin. The alternative is, perhaps, a woman donning the “feminine” version of these garments. It may involve Lululemon, or heels, but then you’re entering a territory of ever-shrinking garments. “The way you feminize it is by making the pants tighter or the shirt lower cut,” suggested Ford. “Then it's signifying something different.” That difference often stands to reinforce the idea that only women’s bodies are sexualized in everyday life, while men’s bodies remain safely shrouded beneath loose fabric.

The Midtown Uniform thus pinpoints the incredibly fine line that professional women — and any women in public, for that matter — are expected to tread, because women, unlike men, cannot just wear their clothes. Because an established uniform exists, when men dress they are instinctively dressing with their accomplishments. Because women lack a standard, they must proceed far more cautiously. They are expected to reveal something: their gender, their personality, how they perceive their position. Colvin referred to her own experience giving public lectures, “Women are always trying to figure out what is the academic uniform? What is the language I’m trying to communicate here?”

In exposing the Uniform as a trope, the account opens many more eyes to its existence, simultaneously spreading and haranguing its message. “I think women make something like 20 percent of what men do in bonuses,” the anonymous founder said over e-mail. “Shocking, and frankly, pretty gross… The goal has never been to further perpetuate toxic masculinity. In fact it’s quite the contrary: to expose an elitist, dark corner of society and hopefully get a couple laughs along the way. Hopefully the account teaches that rocking the Uniform isn’t really something to be proud of.”

Yet the message hasn’t quite reached its participants. In an interview with The New York Post, the @MidtownUniform owner said, “Most people love to see their friends on there.” Likewise, in The Economist, Charlie Wells labelled the account as a “massive digital in-joke” for participants to reify their own power. Perhaps this is where we should be most disturbed: a power so entrenched, so stable that it can acquit itself of and appropriate its own mockery.

The Midtown Uniform relies on our ability to understand these signs and signals of what power looks like, to keep pace with the evolving parade of masculine adornment. It also relies on our own dismissal of clothing, our failure to recognize it as a foundational element of a problematic world order. But casual dress can — and does — beget serious stratification. Sometimes, tacit acceptance of a harmful power structure looks as seemingly innocuous as a Patagonia vest.

Sarah Bochicchio is a NY-based writer and researcher focused on the intersection of fashion, art history, and gender.