Women lawyers are perpetually under the sartorial microscope. Aren't they competent to make their own judgments about their professional obligations - including what they wear to work?
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
- Mark Twain
"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
"The mood will pass, sir."
- P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
Aside from the news itself, one of the disconcerting things about watching morning TV news programs is the frequent airing of Jos. A. Bank1 commercials, with their headless shots of male models in suits that, according to the eardrum-shattering voice-over, are offered on a "buy three and get two free"2 basis, along with ever-changing quantities of free shirts, ties, pocket squares, sock garters, and everything else a guy needs to go to the office without being arrested for indecent exposure.3
These ads bother me not just because they are loud enough to be heard in the shower or because headless guys are creepy. They also remind me there is no Jan. A. Bank, no one-stop shop for the woman lawyer who wants to buy a business suit (or five) without breaking the bank, who wants clothes expressly designed for work, rather than whatever it is that designers think women do with their lives.4
Assembling workworthy gear from the spangled, skimpy, and strange costumes offered up by the fashion industry can be a daunting task. Complicating matters further, there is often a lack of consensus about what is appropriate, as the lively debate on blogs like Corporette.com ("fashion, lifestyle, and career advice for overachieving chicks") attests.
And women lawyers, it seems, are perpetually under the sartorial microscope. For example, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles students recently received a memo about "Ethics, Professionalism, and Course Requirements for Off Campus Externs" that included this observation: "I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I? Yet I'm getting complaints from supervisors…"5
Unsurprisingly, this remark generated plenty of heat in the blogosphere, e.g., "How many times do women in the law need to be told not to dress like streetwalkers?"6 One commentator observed that this memo "comes from a long legal tradition of professors, judges and fellow attorneys schooling female lawyers on just how to dress," citing examples like a bar association's "What Not to Wear" fashion show in which judges, law professors, and law students were invited to "nitpick" women's courtroom attire, and a Tennessee judge's dress code for women lawyers appearing before him, established because he believed that "the women attorneys were not being held to the same standard as the men."7
Some 25 years ago, Mirabella magazine tolled the death knell for "laughable dress-for-success suits and even more laughable floppy bow ties" and declared that working women could fly "their own personal flag."8 But here we are, still scrutinizing women lawyers and what comes out of their closets. Let's figure out why this is happening, and how (and whether) to talk about this in a way that doesn't denigrate the professionalism of women lawyers.
There is no tailor-made solution
There is nothing wrong with advising law students about the sartorial norms and expectations of their future employers. Whether we like it or not, appearance matters - perhaps never more than now, when the "Word of the Year" for 2013 was "selfie"9 and a carefully crafted Facebook persona is de rigueur.
And for lawyers, the issue of "what to wear" is bound up with ideals of professionalism, meeting clients' expectations, and respect for the tribunal. The Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct requires that "A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials," and that probably includes dressing appropriately.
But it is not always clear what "appropriate" attire looks like for women lawyers. Take the example of stilettos, which Loyola's externship director believed to be so far outside of the realm of "office attire" that they were not worth mentioning. Others, however, believe them to be "a woman's power tool"10 and a sign of success:
Many 80s professional women sought to distance themselves from the stiletto by opting for low heels but they were often ridiculed for this "desexing" choice. High fashion reacted with a more sexualized form of "power dressing," complete with toweringly high "killer heels".... By the 1990s, many argued that the trappings of stereotyped femininity should be transformed into signifiers of success, including high heels.11
Wear flats and be desexed or wear heels and be vilified - there's no way to win.
Even where there is consensus about what to wear, it can be extremely difficult to find it in stores if this is the year (or decade) that Fashion decrees it de trop. This happened with pantyhose - a conservative dressing must-have - which were on the verge of extinction until Kate Middleton started sporting them, prompting a nylon renaissance.12 Skirt suits where the skirt ends somewhere near the wearer's knee are on the endangered list, too, and I can only hope that some celebrity savior will take up their cause sometime before I retire.
Cutting the Gordian Knot
So every woman finds her own way through the sartorial labyrinth, and emerges with her own unique solutions to the problem of what to wear to work. Perhaps the differences invite commentary, but too much of it is destructive and divisive. There must be a better way.
Typically, observations about women lawyers' attire are offered as a means of promoting professionalism. Despite that characterization, they too often sound like fashion critiques from Project Runway with a dash of prudery and/or snobbery thrown in. But if the true goal is advancing professionalism, then any advice should be rendered in a professional manner, with due regard for the competence, intelligence, and professionalism of the women to whom it is addressed.
Indeed, before any advice is offered, serious consideration should be given to the idea that women lawyers, after all, are competent to make their own judgments about their professional obligations - including what they wear to work.
Karen Erger is vice president and director of practice risk management at Lockton Companies.