Anonymous

Appearances

My ex-boyfriend, getting ready for work every morning, pulling on his unfailingly neat pressed slacks and expensive Brooks Brothers suit, would always, without fail, complain about his height. As I lay quietly in bed in the early morning hours, still unbelieving that we were in this amazing apartment in midtown Manhattan, almost feeling like we had become our parents, I could not believe that Aaron could be complaining about anything. However, some study he had read had in no uncertain terms told him unequivocally that men who were under 5’11” were less likely to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies than men whose genes had allowed them to hit this magical number. I couldn’t ever convince Aaron that he was only 23, working at a huge investment bank, making more money than he ever knew what to do with, that a Rolex dangled from his watch, and that only a few months earlier, we had been living in squalor in Providence, RI. It seemed that his height did not seem to be holding up his rise to the top of the corporate ladder.

When Aaron left for work at 6 am to go do whatever it was he did all day, I began my day of decisions. I too worried about my appearance every morning, but it was a very different kind of worry. As a woman in the business world who looked younger than her 22 years, who constantly got made fun of for “dressing up in mommy’s clothes” whenever she wore the required suit to the office, I was always hyper-aware of whatever I wore to the office. I knew that pants, even if tailored to the nines, made me look younger because they were always just a little longer than they should be. I knew that wearing skirts should be well below the knee, even if Aaron, upon seeing me in my suit skirts, said they made me look like his mother. I knew that I had to pull my hair, which is naturally incredibly curly, pin straight, to prevent myself from looking like Shirley Temple. And I knew that this routine added about three hours every morning to my routine, making a 9:30 start day at the office turn itself into a 4 am anxiety attack as I woke up with my boyfriend every morning so I could decide on make up, hair, and dress.

Was it fair? No. Did I agree? No. Had I gotten comments before on how I looked from the stodgy and uptight law firm that I worked in before even when I thought my dress was perfectly appropriate? I had. My original style had gone out the window, replaced by spending thousands of dollars on deliberately copying, right down to the shoes, the way the models showed the suits on the pages of the catalogues in J.Crew. I called it low-cost personal shopping. As someone who needed to wear high heels so that I could look older, but who barely could toddle around the office in anything less than sneakers, I knew that the senior partners frowned upon heels that were too high. I was always confused as to which shoes I should buy, which styles, even though “trendy,” were considered too daring for the office environment, and of course, if I should just say “Oh, forget it all,” and enter the office in sweat pants and sneakers and wait to see if I got fired.

The office memo on proper clothing attire never helped me either. It told me, in no uncertain words, my skirts, could not be “too short,” my shoes “open-toed but not as if I was going to the beach,” suits without jackets “were appropriate,” and nothing “see-through or too-tight. These vague guidelines gave me nothing to work with. My true guidelines every morning were the cat calls I got from the senior partners, the looks at my butt as I walked down the hall, giving me the opportunity to make mental notes in my heads as to which clothes to throw in the back of my closet and which clothes were okay to wear again. Soon, I began to wear the same black suits over and over again, did the same dull make-up the same bland way, and never wore jewelry, removing my Jewish star—not because anyone had commented on it, but because I was paranoid that someone might.

I know that perhaps I might have over done how paranoid I was about dress code but as a female, in a New York law firm, as an underling paralegal, I knew people were staring at me and judging me all the time. I choose to err, after a few months of well placed comments towards me, some inappropriate, others maybe not, on the side of caution. And my life became a life of blue and black suits, well tailored, very boring, and a series of mornings where I woke up to tear my curls into straight lines in a desperate attempt to make myself invisible.

As a law student, now I do not think about how I dress. I dress as I did at college, perhaps with more sophistication, except on days when I do not do my reading, where I tend to dress down and in blander and more neutral tones. However, I still see those bland suits hanging there, and I still have to throw them on for interviews occasionally. When I do have to wear any of those suits, I hear my ex-boyfriend’s voice, in my head complaining about his height when he goes out every morning for work. Forgive me if my sympathies do not reach out to him.

8 Comments

KHernan881

There are a number of posts on this site about proper dressing and I read all of these to be complaints of sorts.  I have little sympathy for lawyers or soon-to-be lawyers that complain about having to wear closed toe shoes or dark suits to work.  I really think that you should have worked this concern into the equation when you decided to go to law school.  There are plenty of careers that don’t require wearing a suit.  Yes, few of them pay as well as lawyering pays but hey, a surgeon basically works in clothes that look and feel like pajamas! Another bit of advice… take your JD and leave NYC.  Believe it or not, and I know it’s hard, NYC is not the center of the universe.  Head to the west coast where you’ll find plenty of big firms without dress codes, ones where you only have to wear a suit when you go to court or meet with opposing counsel, ones that pay the same as ones in NYC.  The big firm I summered at allowed casual dress five days a week, people literally wore beach sandals to work—daily, and few women seemed to worry about perfect makeup or crisp hairdos.  Yes, you might say this is defeat.  After all, can’t a woman work in a high-powered NYC firm just like the boys?  Yes you can, but stop complaining about the dress code.  I know plenty of men that hate wearing neckties and belts everyday too, but they take the pain for the gain (big money, prestige, Manhattan addresses, etc). There is really nothing you can do about looking too young, except maybe resist buying makeup at the drug store and dying your hair an unnatural color.  Otherwise, get older, through life experience and frankly… time.

Manamana

I agree that New York is not the be-all, end-all, and I say this as some one who only ever wanted to be in New York.  I went to college here, worked in the law, and now go to law school in Gotham.  What I’d like to add, however, is that many—if not most—firms that I interviewed for in the City (if this makes any sense) were formal business causal.  That is: suits are fine (and required if you’re dealing with a client or going to court), but else you can wear more formal business casual clothing, which I interpret as something like slacks but not khakis.  There are only a few places that I’ve heard of that are always business formal. And I basically agree with KH’s other point: you signed up for the suit phenomenon when you signed up for law school.  From what I can tell, the problem I think is less that women have to wear suits, but that we’re judged so harshly (and not just about our fashion sense) for errors—perceived or real—based on a nebulous and ever-changing standard of propriety.  I know one (female) attorney who would kick interns out of the courtroom for wearing peep-toed shoes, but seriously doubt any of the male attorneys I’ve ever worked with would (a) notice, or (b) care.  Partly the problem comes from the fact that what is or is not acceptable is highly subjective.  And, let’s be frank, related to an individual’s body.  I look awful—and probably inappropriate—in some things (like anything that doesn’t “skim the pear,” as the delightful Fug Girls say) that someone with a different body type would not.  Plus, what I think is okay is not the same as the rest of the world.  Take, for instance, white slacks: sort of a danger zone piece of clothing that some people (between Memorial Day and Labor Day) look elegant and awesome in, and others look trashy in (like the intern who wore see-through white pants once over the summer that clearly showed her undergarments, which I had to regulate after a senior attorney emailed me “What’s with the intern’s thong in the library?”). Given that law is a “conservative” profession, it’s probably always better to err on the side of sartorial caution.  But everyone—men and women—should also work to keep our inner fugging voices silent, and focus on the person, not the clothes.

matti422

Law is my second career, and I must say - I LOVE THE SUIT.  I spent years in high tech, where people would wear flip-flops and tank tops to the office.  I saw a woman once wearing a skirt that looked to be 4 inched TOTAL, fishnet hose and platform shoes.  TO WORK!  Suits and conservative dress promote an atmosphere of professionalism which I see in the law which is rare in high tech.  I love the fact that I have to look like a professional every day.  Even though it would be great to live in a world where no one is judged by appearances, we are.  The dark suit and closed-toed pumps project the image which the law relies on.  The trick, of course, is to be comfortable in a suit. If you can’t walk in 3 inch heels (I can’t), don’t wear them.  If you want to wear pants, wear pants - just make sure they fit (if the tailor doesn’t hem them right, have them re-do it, that is what you are paying for - I’m short, too, and have to get all my pants hemmed and can’t wear heels more than 1” tall).  If your hair is curly, wear it curly, but have it cut in such a way that is flattering for you.  Looking professional and being comfortable in your clothing has more to do with being comfortable with who you are than with buying the “right” suit and looking like a catalog model.  You need to accept what you look like, not strive to be someone else.

Eralon

KH is right; we signed up for this.  But she’s also right that New York is not the only option, and neither are big law firms.  Not all places of employment are the same and perhaps a bit more research should be involved in how you are required to dress if this is a concern for you. This really doesn’t seem to be in the firm’s best interest either.  Of those four hours you have spent getting ready, three and a half could be used for more billable hours!

sambular131313

i think the point was not that the author was upset about wearing a suit-which obviously “comes with the territory” when working at a large corporate law firm. I think the point was essentially being made to feel so uncomfortable regardless of what the author did that she was forced to essentially render herself without an identity.
And she makes it a point of saying that perhaps, because of a few misplaced comments early on by men at her firm, and only at 22, that she was perhaps hyper-sensitive to those comments and over-reacted.
As for NYC being the “be all” of the universe-well I disagree with the other posters—I think it most certainly might be but I dont think again, that was the point the author was trying to make here.

borriboo

I think you are being unnecessarily rude, both about the dress code and about New York. 
Why does accepting the status quo have to be a prerequisite to applying for law school?  Can we not all agree that wearing suits is much more uncomfortable for women than it is for men? I'm a little surprised that a nice essay about sexism in dress codes inspires what is essentially patrimony.  And I'm offended by anyone who tells me what I "signed up for."  I can guarantee that what I had to wear to work did not enter the equation in deciding to go to law school for me, and I bet for most others.  And to not go to law school for something so shallow?  Absurd!  And it would no doubt bring even harsher judgment from you.  If I had know everything I know now about the practice of law then (when I was only 22), sure, maybe I wouldn't have gone to law school, and having to wear a suit every day (I don't anymore) would maybe enter the equation - but only because when I signed up for law school, I thought I would be able to take the sort of job that doesn't have a sexist dress code (e.g. public interest job), and I didn't realize that my debt would be so crippling as to limit my options.  That's because of elitism, but that's a whole different issue. 
This "holier-than-thou" attitude displayed in this comment and elsewhere on this site does not give me a cozy feeling about the support of women in the law.  It only furthers my belief that in the work setting, as everywhere, women judge other women harsher than men. Am I the only one that thinks that's sad?

KHernan881

Come on?  Where? 
Are you going to say now that a woman firefighter should complain about how heavy her fire retardent gear is and complain that it is more uncomfortable for a girl than a boy?  Are you going to say that a woman soldier has a valid grievance that a flak jacket is more heavy compared to her body size that it is for a man? Are you going to say that the lifeguard should gripe about having to wear a swimsuit to work everyday because her's fits tight and the men wear board short suits?
Everything in this world isn't sexist.  Every job in this world doesn't require wearing a suit.  Many many men really don't like wearing suits either.  And many feel creatively stifled by the suit just as the woman who wrote this post feels trapped in a world of blue and black.
I also dont' like women judging other women (see my other posts on this site) but I would differ with your assessment that I am judging this woman harder than I would a man. 
Perhaps there is real sexism at work on this woman in her professional and educational experiences.  Afterall, she seems to want to 'disappear' at work and in law school.  Ah,hah, maybe there is a real issue here…
There are a lot of problems with how the legal profession chews up women attorneys and spits them out.  Dress codes, in my humble opinion, are not one such problem.

borriboo

It's sort of a stupid argument, but I feel committed at this point…. your point about other professions would be better taken if we had the same "uniform" in law firms as men - maybe if you think of a better analogy, you will convince me.  But as it is, women's clothes are generally more restrictive and revealing than men's.  I suppose I could wear a man's suit to work, but that's not really the point.  Tell men to wear nylon stockings for a few days, and you may see some changes.
I'm still confused as to why I have to apply only for non-suit wearing jobs and can't complain about it.  But that's just my ignorance.  Probably also why I think most things in the legal profession are sexist, including our dress code.  And that opinion is not at all humble.  At least I don't pretend it is.
 
P.S. I didn't think you were judging the poster more harshly than you would judge a man - I have no doubt your judgment is unboundless - just that it is a stupid thing to jump all over someone about.  The general comment about women in general judging other women harsher has more to do with the unsupportive attitude.  On that, I could be totally wrong.

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