When black bowler hats gave way to red braces

THE BIG Bang set the City on a course of profound expansion, not just of wealth, but of people and culture and even location. Twenty-five years after deregulation, London’s financial and legal districts are full of the sort of people that would have made the bowler-hatted old boys of the post-war period shudder. Women, foreigners, and openly gay people not only work here, but reach the very top of the pile. And they do so not just in the Square Mile and Mayfair, but in Canary Wharf, Southwark and other places too.

The Big Bang, then, made the City a lot bigger in every way possible. In the old days, finance was segregated by class: stockbrokers were upper class and jobbers were working class. Fathers took care of sons, and old boys looked out for each other, keeping the City like a members’ club. Now, in many workplaces, foreigners are a majority and advancement is generally decided meritocratically. Overall, the scale of London’s financial services grew exponentially, turning the capital into the world’s greatest financial hub, even overtaking Wall Street.

But it was the sudden money unleashed after 27 October 1986 that brought change first and fast, transforming City tastes, fashions and working practices. First to go were the bowler and top hats, which were still worn in certain places in the City, even if they had been in decline for years. Men’s fashion changed quickly and tellingly: the three-piece suits and umbrellas were replaced with a look evoking the brashness of Wall Street.

Braces and screaming stripes moved in and soon set the “City boy” in a league of his own, at least where suspect fashion was concerned. William Skinner, inheritor of the Savile Row tailor Dege & Skinner, founded in 1865, says: “Certainly red braces characterised the City look of the late 80s: they were worn straight under jackets, not hidden by waistcoats. And big bold chalk stripes were very popular. Now people are a bit more subtle from a Savile Row perspective.” Pre-deregulation, says Skinner, the bowler, three-piece suit and umbrella outfit was worn as a kind of uniform that nodded to Britain’s hefty military tradition – the hat in particular.

We’re a long way from a Colonel’s formality now. The US import of “casual Fridays” in the nineties created a vogue for the relaxed look, and led to such horrors as not wearing a tie with your suit -- or in many cases not wearing a suit at all,.

Another big change in the City since 1986 is the ratio between work and play. The nail in the coffin of the Chablis lunch was the Americanisation of finance. Long hours and eating lunch al desko became the expectation and the necessity as business became global and you had to be on hand for calls and emails from different time zones.

Ashley Crossley, head of the wealth management at Baker & MacKenzie’s London offices, says: “Lawyers at our firm are on email and expected to be responsive literally 24/7 as we are a global firm and we have clients emailing from all over the world. Global business means you can’t just sign off and head out for a long lunch. Even after you leave the office at night, you need to be contactable.”

Post-Big Bang, the ancient, richly appointed offices in Mayfair and the Square Mile, surrounded by the finest dens of food, wine and culture, were being given the boot for shiny new towers, some popping up in Canary Wharf. After years of resistance, the City gave in to the development of skyscrapers. Tim Badham, the founder of Inner Place, a luxury concierge and an employee of Merrill Lynch in the early nineties, says: “Canary Wharf was not a place you wanted to go to, and you tried to avoid having to, even for meetings. We far preferred the City or the West End.”

But how things have changed. For lunch it’s got one of London’s highest densities of attractive eateries, from the swanky and high-end like Roka and Plateau, to the quick and easy, like Itsu and Byron Burgers.

Are law, finance and earning bonuses just less fun now in London? Not necessarily. You can spend, you just have to do it quietly. It’s become the norm at Nobu, for instance, to order sake worth hundreds, but served in an plain carafe to hide the label. And private dining rooms have become a must for any restaurant serving City folk – everywhere from the Mercer on Threadneedle Street to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley has one.

Badham recalls the time in the early nineties when a competitor bank went and bought up an entire showroom of Porsche Boxters on the day a new model came out, hired a car transporter and dropped the cars off outside the bank.

Certainly the City’s personal relationship with cash is more discreet now. At least where red braces are concerned, that’s is a good thing.