Last summer, I had dinner with a dozen British and Italian insurance managers in Rome. In desultory fashion, we discussed the weather (hot) and the economy (not so hot) until someone raised the subject of socks. Suddenly the evening sprang to life: the men pushed their chairs back from the table and rolled up their trouser legs. Each British man was wearing a low sock that ended three or four inches above the ankle, revealing a quantity of snow white leg; each Italian had his calf covered in a finely spun sock that went all the way up to the knee. Each nationality stared at the other’s socks in uncomprehending horror.

I thought of these insurance experts the other day when I read a New York Times blog in which a fashion writer advised men what to wear on the day they get the sack.

“The perfect termination outfit should feature professionalism and employability as the top note, but with accents of confidence and an aftertaste that leaving the premises means moving on up. A sober suit with a bright shirt is perfect.”

The advice appealed to me, as did the delicious campness of the writing. Yet the post caused a storm of self-righteous indignation from readers accusing the author of crassness in focusing on unessentials at a time like this.

Such readers miss the point. Unessentials are even more important at a time like this. Even in good times, there is nothing trivial about what business people choose to wear. A peep at our socks will tell what nationality we are; a peep at the rest of it will tell what line of business we are in and also will give a clue on the state of the economy. One of the most blessed side-effects of recession is that we all smarten up. A sober suit is not only the right thing to wear the day you get axed but also the right thing to wear every other working day, too.

At a conference in London last week for HR managers, everyone was in a suit and tie while, at the same conference two years ago, they were all casual. HR people are on the front line of the jobs market and they are also like lemmings – so, if they think suits are in, they are in.

The casual look, which we used to celebrate as a sign of egalitarianism and unstuffiness, now looks sloppy. When Stephen Hester, head of Royal Bank of Scotland, was photographed on a recent Sunday leaving the Treasury in jeans and an extraordinary beige gilet with suede patches on the shoulders, the punters did not like it. One wrote to the Financial Times claiming that Mr Hester appeared to be wearing the very same M&S slippers that this reader got for Christmas. The fashion scales have fallen from our eyes. We now see that men in casual clothes look simply awful; and we also are starting to suspect that a man who is casual with his clothes may be casual with our money.

The new smartness is born of paranoia. I know one man who has just gone out to buy some Jermyn Street shirts (a sale bargain) in order to send the message to his boss that he would rather not be fired. It has been a good investment: he still has a job and says the ritual of ironing these shirts reminds him that his job matters, and claims to respect it a little more.

I discovered a few years ago the truth that one feels better about one’s job when one looks smarter . Until I was 40, I used to dress myself mainly in clothes bought from the sale rail at Gap Kids (size XL) and slung them on carelessly. Now I wear jackets and heels and mascara, foundation, lipstick and pearl earrings. Partly, I’m trying to offset the ravages of age; but I’ve also noticed that, when I dress to impress, I may not succeed in impressing anyone else but I do impress myself. And that, surely, is a good start.

More than this, I find that dressing up is a nice thing to do in itself. It lifts the spirits. I have a friend who has just been appointed to a senior managerial job and her first decision has been to launch High Heels Friday. Early soundings suggest that this is going to be popular with her female staff. When the economy is grim, we need to dress up to cheer up.

There are two further advantages to dressing formally for work. First, it means that you always know what to wear. Those stressful daily questions – tie or no tie? chinos or suit? – are answered simply. Even better, dressing up means a sharper demarcation between work and the rest of your life: tie means work and T-shirt means slopping around doing nothing.

Yet the biggest joy about saying goodbye to casual is that we say goodbye to some of the cruddy thinking that went with it. Most pathetic was the idea that dressing casually helped you to be creative. I have been watching the television series, Mad Men, and am gratified to see that the creatives in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s did not let their stiffly starched collars and perfect tailoring prevent them from dreaming up good ads. (Neither did their outfits prevent them from bedding their secretaries.)

To survive this recession we need to smarten up and buckle down. We need some belts and braces. We need to pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps. We need to get some work under our belts. It is no coincidence that none of these clothing idioms mentions hoodies or chinos. Instead their message is: pull your socks up – whatever length they happen to be.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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