Evolution of style
Join Insider Engage, as we stroll down memory lane and reminisce about our industry’s sartorial highlights.
The suit and tie have become the uniform of choice for the insurance underwriting and broking profession – and for good reason. Over the decades, tailoring has become more affordable but it has also adapted to those in the industry who prefer traditional accessories, while catering to men and women who want a more modern and less stuffy look.
But by the mid-1990s, “dress-down Fridays” had become common across the City, and now, in lockdown, the industry has had to update its working wardrobe once again.
How has the industry looked through the ages – and which style do you prefer?
Insurance underwriters and brokers working in London from around 1920 would have worn accessories such as bowler hats and carried canes, along with their traditional suit and tie. The image shows two models in the US in 2016 for a photo shoot for menswear brand Charles Tyrwhitt. A spokesperson for the company says the image is a play on the “English heritage and Tyrwhitt charm”. Who doesn’t love a bowler hat and umbrella?
Suits you, sir!
Elliot Lane, joint managing director of FWD Consulting, who was working in the communications department of Lloyd’s in 1995, says that by the mid-1990s the fashion was for double-breasted suits.
“I used to visit Gieves & Hawkes on Lime Street for both suits and shirts,” he recalls. “White shirts, usually with a double cuff, were the Lloyd’s underwriting room uniform. I remember a clean white shirt distinguished you as a ‘Lloyd’s man’ rather than a ‘London Market man’.”
Striped or coloured shirts were popular among brokers, Lane says, adding that three-piece pinstripe suits were often worn because they had been “handed down” three generations. But he remembers that the newer suit was often frowned upon by underwriters, with one sniffily remarking, “three-piece suits are for snooker players”.
“On dress-down Fridays in the City, the red or mustard trouser was de rigueur. Also, whatever outfit was in the window of the retailer Hackett that week was copied by 60 percent of the market,” Lane adds.
The history of this menswear brand is that Jeremy Hackett was working on Savile Row during the 1960s when he became “fascinated by the quintessential British attire of the early 20th century gentleman”, according to information from the company.
“By 1983, he had opened his first store selling second-hand clothes on the King’s Road, Chelsea. It was here that he began creating his own garments by merging traditional styles with modern cuts, perfect for those seeking Savile Row style – without the associated cost,” Hackett states.
Tie or no tie?
As the industry moved into the Noughties, the debate over wearing a tie or not had developed.
Guillaume Bonnissent, CEO of Quotech, who has worked mainly as an underwriter, says ties still needed to be worn in the Lloyd’s building until a couple of years ago. But he suggests that when it comes to sporting one, there are two types of people: “The people who put a tie on just before going into Lloyd’s – and they have about 20 ties in one of the drawers under their desks – and there were the guys who wore a tie anyway because they put it on in the morning.”
Lane adds: “I was probably an early pioneer of the non-tie outside Lloyd’s which was to try and make the profession more relaxed and accessible. However, it really is a personal choice.”
But times have changed, according to Bonnissent. “It’s only recently, I think it’s in the last two or three years, that Lloyd’s allowed gentlemen not to wear ties.
“But it was always a bit of a challenge when we had visitors, especially from America and hot countries, who don’t go around wearing suit and ties [normally],” says Bonnissent. “They had to wear ill-fitting clothes from colleagues or an overcoat, to hide whatever they were wearing.”
The present-day insurance underwriting and broking industry has become slightly more accepting in terms of what can be worn by men and women in the office.
A spokesperson for Charles Tyrwhitt says that over time it has adopted a more relaxed approach in its office wear offering, with fewer ties and jackets, instead opting to embrace button-down, non-iron, linen-mix shirts.
This has, perhaps, been influenced by some of the “challenger” insurers on the retail side which have a more laid-back attitude to dress codes.
Jimmy Williams, CEO of contents insurance start-up Urban Jungle, says: “For a business operating in a traditional industry, we do stand out as particularly casual.”
But he acknowledges that this can cause a few issues. “Various insurers we work with have offices at Lloyd’s of London. I typically just wear jeans and a t-shirt when I go to meet them. Of the thousands of people pouring into Lloyd’s, in normal times, it's pretty rare that the security guards there don't zoom in on me and give me some pretty firm questioning,” he explains.
Image source: Urban Jungle
Working during lockdown has introduced a very different business wardrobe. Bonnissent thinks the recent switch to working from home has heralded the biggest change in the way the industry dresses.
“Quite a few people are wearing polo shirts or even t-shirts while doing meetings, even with external parties,” he observes. “These are the same people who would be wearing, if not a tie, at least a suit.”
For Bonnissent, the suit has been such an enduring dress code because it looks smart and helps to separate work from home life. “Actually, that’s one of the biggest complaints of people working from home, they never really feel like they stop working. There’s no separation that the clothes would bring.”