valerie lherrou

No Longer Extraordinary: court dress

Shortly after I graduated from law school, I was getting ready for a job interview one day, wearing a suit with pumps, and my young son exclaimed "you look like a real lawyer!" Since I didn’t feel like one yet, it was great to hear that I at least looked like one! (It also freaked him out the first day I went to court wearing a long skirt with boots: he was worried I would be found in contempt.) While my then eight-year-old son perhaps had a simplistic view, it's true: lawyers wear suits. Everyone knows that. 

Except that it's not that simple. What attorneys, male or female, wear to court may depend on the geographic region, the jurisdiction, the type of trial. While male attorneys may have fewer options in court attire, they still have options: to choose a necktie over a bow tie, a bespoke versus off the rack suit; or vary the colors of their shirts. I know male attorneys who appear in court with beards, earrings, ponytails. Men in the south may wear seersucker suits in summer. (And what about those white shoes?) Speaking of men’s shoes, I’ve seen men in court wearing black sneakers, boat shoes, hiking boots, even sandals with black socks (yes, with their suits!) I've seen men in courtrooms wearing pants that are too long, with cuffs that are frayed at the back.

However, the real controversy regarding courtroom attire starts when a women walks into the courtroom. Some female attorneys, even today, tell of having been admonished by a judge (or pulled aside by a bailiff or clerk) for wearing a pants suit. Female attorneys give each other advice about dressing for specific judges. Juries have been known to spend as much time deliberating over a female attorney's attire as her arguments. The Chicago Bar Association held a "what not to wear fashion show" in which women attorney were told not to wear pink, or engagement rings with large diamonds (according to coverage of the event). Law firms issue memos to female attorneys on how to dress (and talk). An attorney of my acquaintance who was contemplating running for office was told by a male counterpart that she shouldn't run unless she started wearing a bra. Another attorney I know was told by a judge that she should not try a case while pregnant: she would have an unfair advantage because the jury would feel sympathetic towards her. A Tennessee judge's edict regarding appropriate courtroom attire for women went viral. 

The “problem” of women lawyers and their wardrobes has been discussed in the New York Times, the ABA Journal, and Slate, to name a few. What is going on? Do women really not know how to dress for court?

The legal profession is mired in conservative tradition. American attorneys may not be so affected by this conservatism as attorneys in other countries, where traditional “court dress”—which may even in some instances still include a horsehair wig perched on top of one's head—is required in many courts. Having a prescribed uniform may make it easier (and equaller!), to dress for court: if all attorneys wear robes, it doesn’t much matter what you’re wearing underneath it (insert joke of your choice here). Wearing a uniform means that no one can mistake your profession (a plus for any woman attorney who has ever been mistaken for a court reporter or paralegal). But in America, even if a woman wears a conservative skirt suit, she may still be criticized: for wearing comfortable shoes (sometimes you have to be on your feet all day), or at the other extreme, stilettos (hey, they make you appear taller and more powerful!). It’s hard to imagine that someone would tell a woman not to wear a pink blouse with her conservative suit (make up your minds, people—if a woman must wear skirts and not pants to court, shouldn’t she then wear a “feminine” color with her suit?) 

The debate over proper attire for women attorneys certainly affects law students looking for employment: recently, a judge's clerk contacted me to convey that the judge (a woman) disapproved of a female clerkship candidate who did not wear pantyhose. It's not just men who patrol what women wear: at a recent law school panel presentation on "how to have a successful summer," one attorney panelist told the students that she would send home any interns who showed up at the office in stiletto heels; another panelist flashed her heels and remarked that they were fine at her office. So, what’s female lawyer to do? 

The advice I always give to law students (of any gender) is that on an interview, they should be the most conservatively and professionally-dressed person in the room. A job applicant seeking in a conservative, traditional field such as law practice (and especially clerkships!) is not in a position to push boundaries, set fashion trends, or express individuality. So yeah, follow all those memos and rules. BUT, as regards women lawyers, I say: this focus on women lawyers' attire is driven (once again, as in so many arenas) by the need for men to control women (and yes, women will police other women for them, as in the stilletto example above). Our culture still judges women, even the most powerful women, by a completely different standard (one inferior) to men: Diane Sawyer asking Hillary Clinton if she can be both a grandmother and president (did anyone ask Dwight Eisenhower that question when he was running?), the New York Times firing Jill Abrahamson because of her "abrasive" management style (did anyone fire Abe Rosenthal for being too abrasive?).

The fact of the matter is, professional women who have spent three years and tens of thousands of dollars on their graduate education are smart enough to pick out their own wardrobes without help. Women usually are aware of how they look, and what effect their clothes are intended to have. To those who complain about women's courtroom attire, I say: you may not agree with her choices, you may not like them... but unless you really think a woman did not intend to present the appearance she does (there's a run in the back of her tights, she has chalk on the seat of her pants, she is missing a button, or her skirt is hiked up in back) then keep your thoughts to yourself. Why not focus your energy on, oh... something that matters?

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