By Lisa Mazzie • November 12, 2011•Writers in Residence
Often, most particularly in the fall semester, I tend to see a lot of students wandering the law school in professional dress. Some students are interviewing for jobs, but others are heading to or coming from their internships or clerkships. The most obvious thing about all these students is the lack of color in their wardrobes; there’s a lot of black, grey, and navy. The second most obvious thing is that they all look the same; conservative cut suits and button down shirts.
Admittedly, for men, the choices for professional dress are limited. A suit is a suit. Jackets have different cuts, but there will always be a jacket and slacks. Suit colors – as far as I’ve ever seen – tend to fall in a narrow spectrum of black, grey, navy, brown. I’ve yet to see a professional man rocking a red suit at work. Shirts might be solid or striped, white or colored, but even then, they are button up, long-sleeved, collared shirts. The most daring part of a man’s professional wardrobe is his tie.
For women, though, professional dress is much trickier, and calls into play a whole host of underlying issues involving cultural norms, sexism, and patriarchy. Women have more choices for professional dress - slacks or skirts, nylons or tights or bare legs - more colors and more styles from which to choose. Nonetheless, the range of “appropriate” professional dress for a female lawyer is significantly limited. You won’t often find a woman lawyer rocking a red suit in court, though she may wear one to work. However, even in the office, women tend to stick to black, grey, navy, and brown. But the color of a woman’s suit is often the least of a woman lawyer’s dressing worries.
A couple of years ago at the Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting, a panel of judges began discussing lawyerly dress. The topic was raised when Judge Joan H. Lefkow told the story of a woman lawyer who showed up for a jury trial wearing what Judge Lefkow described as “a velour outfit that looked for all the world as if [the lawyer] was ‘on her way home from the gym.’” Clearly not an appropriate outfit for court and Judge Lefkow told the judges and lawyers present at the meeting that law firms should be discussing such things with their lawyers.
From there, other judges gave a host of other comments on lawyerly dress. Judge Michael P. McCuskey said “that at moot court competitions in law schools, he had seen participants wearing ‘skirts so short that there’s no way they can sit down, and blouses so short there’s no way the judges wouldn’t look.’” Judge Benjamin Goldgar said that women lawyer’s inappropriate dress in court was “a huge problem.” Judge Goldgar commented, “[Y]ou don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party.”
The following year, the Chicago Bar Association held a What Not to Wear Fashion Show for law students. Above the Law posted a write up the following week. While the presentation was meant to provide advice for both men and women, the advice for women apparently outpaced the advice for men, and that advice (given by Chicago area judges and lawyers) ranged from practical to, in my view, appallingly sexist.
On the practical side, I agree with one panelist who said, “I shouldn’t know anything about your underwear . . . bra straps are meant to be hidden.” And blouses shouldn’t hike up enough in back (or front) to expose your tattoo or, for that matter, your navel or other parts of your bare torso.
There was the usual divide over whether female lawyers should wear skirts or slacks. Legally Fabulous, one blogger who covered the event for Above the Law, said she was “of the old, conservative school of thought that women should be in skirt suits.” On the other hand, Judge Goldgar, who was one of the panelists, claimed not to notice whether women appeared in his court in skirts or slacks.
But beyond these points, the advice given began to smack of sexism. According to Attractive Nuisance, the other blogger who covered the event for Above the Law, the summary of advice for women was this:
Make sure your suit is not too fitted, wear flats, wear minimal jewelry, wear minimal makeup, do not wear hair in a pony-tail, do not wear hair down in a distracting way, wear pantyhose, do not wear open-toe shoes . . ., do not wear peep-toe shoes, and do not wear dark nail polish (avoid burgundy . . .). Wear a shirt under your suit that is not too tight, not low-cut, not bright colored, not patterned, not ruffle-y, and not too feminine. . . . Oh, and do not wear your engagement ring if it is large because it may anger your women interviewers and cause jealousy (and perhaps rage). . . . In addition, never wear boots, never shows your arms, NEVER wear pink, never wear clothes that reveal your body shape, never wear clothes that reveal your tramp stamp, and never dress like a “sleazy girl[,]” which apparently means wearing a fitted pencil skirt and side ponytail.
What’s worse? The stated reasons for this lengthy list of proscriptions. We women lawyers are a temptation and a distraction to the men with whom we work. According to one of Legally Fabulous, “The partner you’re working for is someone’s husband/father/boyfriend. Show some respect.” According to Judge Goldgar, as reported by Attractive Nuisance, “[D]o not reveal your form in court because male judges will be distracted and female judges will be resentful.” And, according to one of the women panelists, “[L]adies, have some respect for yourselves. There are a lot of married men at law firms and you don’t want to tempt them.”
It’s an insult to women lawyers to think that the only reason women dress as they do is to impress or tempt the men with whom they work. As Jill, a blogger for Feministe, accurately countered, “Nevermind that the partner you’re working for may actually be someone’s wife/mother/girlfriend, and may just want to wear her damned pencil skirt without getting looked at sideways.” What might be worse, in my mind, is that there were women giving this advice. To suggest that women lawyers dress a certain way to avoid tempting the men and angering women perpetuates every stereotype out there about men unable to control their sexual urges and women who are petty and jealous of other, more attractive women.
Now, to be fair, there really should be guidelines for appropriate dress for lawyers. As Jill at Feministe says, “Yes, you should wear a suit to court and to client meetings and to interviews; your suit should fit. Yes, you should wear appropriate shoes, and not sneakers or sandals. No[,] you should not wear jeans or leggings or sweatpants or weekend casual-wear to work.” And as I said earlier, no, we shouldn’t see your bra straps, your cleavage, your underwear, or your bare torso when you move. Yes, you should be able to sit down in your skirt and not run the risk of pulling a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
But when we go beyond this and start picking at shirt colors and styles, shoe styles, hair styles, whether a woman wears no makeup, some makeup, or full makeup (and, by the way, a woman with full make up is not necessarily looking trampy), we’re entering a zone of excessiveness. It perpetuates sexist attitudes and beliefs, and to the extent that women buy into it, it allows men to continue to set the standards on what is or is not appropriate for women in a professional setting. If we’re seriously concerned about how lawyers look when they appear in court, then let’s establish a dress code that is applied across the board to both men and women: black suits, white button-down shirts with no more than the top button unbuttoned, black closed-toe shoes with one-inch heels or less. There. That oughta do it.
Whenever I think about this topic of women and professional dress, I always come back to a great line in the movie Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, where Erin’s boss, Ed Masry, suggested to her one way that she might be able to be friendlier with the women in the office.
Ed Masry: In a law firm you may want to re-think your wardrobe a little.
Erin Brockovich: Well[,] Ed, I think I look nice. And as long as I have one ass instead of two I'll wear what I like if that's all right with you[.] You might want to re-think those ties.
Thank you, Erin.