Friday, June 08, 2012

Crimes of fashion

Even though I'm not a lawyer, even though my "work" clothes are dissertation sweats, for some reason, I keep coming across the question (see the comments) of what female lawyers can and can't wear. This seems to be a subject of endless fascination for many in that profession. The limits seem both strict and contradictory: women must wear flat shoes, or must not. Suit jackets are de rigueur, or too masculine if paired with pants. And the great question of 'what to wear in front of a judge,' my goodness. One would think the 'judge' was there for the express purpose of judging not whichever case, but whether a dark red nail polish is or is not an acceptable choice for a lawyer to wear in court. (For the record, I could not care less what colors are permitted in this situation, so please, let's not make this a thread that.)

What does interest me, however, is what the appeal is of this genre. Is it simply that it's hard to sort out what the rules are, which produces anxiety, and this is not unlike forums springing up to address nervous  grad school applicants? Is this a Quinn-and-the-Fashion-Club thing, as in, are people getting sadistic joy out of pointing out the fashion crimes of their peers, all the more so when the "crimes" are things like wearing black instead of navy, or navy instead of black? Is it genuine fun for fashion-oriented women to figure out how to look chic while still obeying what some post about this somewhere referred to as the Talmudic rules of dress for female lawyers, the way some girls with a uniform will do everything possible to dress it up/down? Is there some kind of perverse thing going on, such that women who've entered a high-powered, still-gendered-male profession enjoy following the evidently quite sexist rules when it comes to the superficial? On this, enlighten me. But again, on the specifics of "business casual" versus "business formal," I already know more than I care to.


BOL said...

All of this confusion could be solved by doing what we do..wear robes, male and female alike, no way of showing off whether you are rich or poor, male or female; all alike in front of the judge: at least that is is equality (the other two will follow). Should send you a picture.

PG said...

Bol: Good idea! I noticed when I visited high courts in India that the attorneys all wear robes, and underneath will be a variety of clothing for both men and women. It would be nice for lawyers to have something like the white coat/scrubs of the medical profession.

Phoebe: At least to me, the subject is of interest because it seems, as BOL implicitly notes, an oddly sexist aspect of what is supposed to be a relatively gender-equitable profession.

There's a law firm called Stroock that used to give out little squeezable penguins with their logo and the slogan "We may dress like other lawyers, but the similarities end there." In theory, lawyers are supposed to be a flock of indistinguishable dark suits. In reality, women who actually dress indistinguishably from their male colleagues are seen as bizarre, and I'm betting this was the case even in the 1970s and 1980s when ties and shoulder pads were women's wear trends.

And yes, the peculiarity for litigators of coming before judges, these people who have fairly arbitrary authority to make rules for "their" courtrooms, heightens the difference between the legal profession and any other job where you're expected to wear a suit. I worked for a health care company before law school where the dress code was nominally business formal for every "professional" (i.e. non-secretarial). Since I was getting paid decently but not well, I bought cheap suits wherever I could find them in something vaguely like my size, which mean they were in a variety of colors and styles, and no one cared so long as I followed the nominal rule (actually, no one seemed to care on the days when I'd diverge from that rule and fail to wear a jacket).

Phoebe said...


If the subject's of interest (to you, and I suspect to others as well) because of the sexism, how to square the amount of glee with which, from what I can tell, many women in this profession react in horror at the fashion crimes of their colleagues? Is it just that female lawyers are so worried about violating these rules themselves that it's de-stressing to mock those who cross the line in obvious ways? Is there some element of envy whenever a woman doesn't obey every last rule and gets away with it, such that when that woman finally is called out, it feels as though, so to speak, justice has been served?

In terms of sexism, though, it would seem that part of why women can't wear a uniform the way men can is that for many men, a generic (but tailored/expensive/whatever) suit is a relief, whereas for many women, it's an annoying constraint. Whether we can trace women's greater interest in self-expression-through-dress to underlying sexism is another matter. But of their own volition, on average, women probably do take more pleasure in shopping for clothes, work clothes included, than do men. This as well as nefarious marketing would explain the greater variety in womenswear.

As for judges, as an outsider to this, I don't see why just erring on the conservative side wouldn't be enough. If it's not, if a lawyer is given a hard time for wearing a navy suit and sensible two-inch rounded-toe pumps because the judge prefers a pinstriped pantsuit and a pointy toe, couldn't you, like, sue?

PG said...

how to square the amount of glee with which, from what I can tell, many women in this profession react in horror at the fashion crimes of their colleagues?

I have seen this sort of schadenfreude only in places like Above the Law, not from anyone I know personally, so I couldn't say for sure.

At a general and non-gender-specific level, I do think the legal profession attracts people who are really into rules and their enforcement. Courtrooms especially can be absurdly fraught atmospheres of correct behavior and policing of misbehavior.

I just attended the oral argument in a state Supreme Court for a challenge to a criminal conviction. The out-of-state lawyer arguing for the defendant drew some raised eyebrows when he talked over a judge, and outright smirks and titters when he kept talking after a judge told him time was up, and the judge cut in and said "I don't think you heard me. Your time is up." I'm surprised there wasn't an audible "Ooooh..." from the spectators, like there'd be in school when someone got in trouble.

I'm a mildly rules-oriented person and can get some joy from my colleagues' errors, but not so much for personal behavior as for things like "OMG I can't believe he used endnotes instead of footnotes, WTF!" But for people whose talents lie more in personal style than in grammar, syntax and slavish adherence to the Bluebook, I can see where the tendency might erupt in fashion shaming.

caryatis said...

Many people dress terribly in college/law school and need a bit of guidance when they start at a "real job."

I'm not a lawyer, but I work in the legal field and do try to follow the rules. I think it gives me a sense of security -- I'm just a few years out of college, usually the youngest person around, and I still need to project a sense of authority. So looking fashionable is less important than looking professional -- and maybe just a bit older than I am.

Maybe no one would really care if I wore peep-toe shoes with no pantyhose and a sleeveless shirt, but if I did I would worry what people were thinking. Easier to follow the (informal) rules and keep my mind on the job.

Oh, and in reference to your comment about judges, some judges will say exactly what they think and others won't. Whether you win the case sometimes depends on subtle, unspoken factors. And regardless of whether you win the case, you want to maintain your reputation with judges or lawyers you might want to work with again. Being a fashion plate or a rulebreaker is not the image you're trying to project.

Phoebe said...


All of that makes sense, but your point is that lawyers care to dress professionally, which was never in question. The questions are why more than a few words need to be stated on what that means, why how to go about doing so is such a mystery, and why (some!) female lawyers evidently take a great deal of delight in pointing out the sartorial errors of other female lawyers.

caryatis said...

Well, because a lot of what professional dressing is is paying attention to the subtleties. Someone has to teach you that a navy blue suit is okay but a brown one is not, or that stud earrings are okay but not dangly ones.

Case in point: the outfits that fashion magazines/books recommend for wearing to work are almost all ones I would consider inappropriate. So you can have fashion knowledge without knowing what 'professional' means.

And as for why pointing out others' mistakes is fun, I think it's another manifestation of the competitiveness among people all doing more or less the same thing. If you can't feel superior to another woman because of the quality of your work, you can feel superior because she doesn't know that knee-high boots are unacceptable. Maybe it's different in academia...

PG said...

Above the Law, but a guest-post, so interesting rather than just horrifying.