There is a double standard in appropriate court room attire for male and female attorneys. Men wear suit jackets and ties to court every time. I’ve seen 6’3” men borrow the suit jackets of their 5’9” coworkers to go to court when they’ve misplaced their own, men ridiculed or reprimanded for choosing a bowtie over the traditional, and male attorneys who won’t even enter the courtroom if they feel less than professionally dressed. On the other hand, I’ve seen women in dresses I’d wear to the beach, bedazzled jean jackets, make up I’d only wear on Halloween, and shoes only a “dancer” should wear to work. So, I’m going to discuss and occasionally proffer advice on what I see as problematic in women’s court attire, from head to toe.
Makeup: There’s a place for bar or club makeup. And it’s at the bar or in the club, not the courtroom. There’s a place to test out new makeup techniques. It’s your bathroom, not the courtroom. If you’re using glitter or smoky eye or really any color found in a rainbow on your eyelids as part of your professional court appearance, you’re doing it wrong. I’m going to skip blushes and lipsticks and just say this: even clowns don’t want to look like clowns. As usual, a little goes a long way. Don’t overdo it.
Tops: Men have less to choose from as “appropriate” and therefore less to worry about. They’re pretty much required to do the long sleeve button up, with maybe the occasional sweater, or vest, or sweater vest. The comments about makeup and the club apply here. If you’d wear that shirt to a bar or club, don’t wear it to court. If you’re showing cleavage, don’t wear that shirt. If your bra can be seen through your shirt, don’t wear it without a second shirt underneath it. If your shirt throws light around the room from glitter or sequins, guess what? Don’t wear it. You’re a professional, not a disco ball. Finally, stay true to your size. If you’re a petite, wear petites; if you’re a bigger girl, wear a bigger size. Drowning in your shirts or turning fabric into sausage casing is not flattering.
Jackets: Nothing is “the same as” a suit jacket. Wear a suit jacket. Wear one that matches (or at least complements) your pants or skirt. A cardigan is not a suit jacket, even if it has some kind of collar. A jean jacket is not a suit jacket, even if it is dark or adorned in some way to make it an atypical denim jacket. A shawl is not a suit jacket. You don’t see men in court in denim jackets saying, “It’s basically the same thing, Judge.”
Bottoms: Again, men have less to worry about. It’s pants every day. For women, skirts get added to the wardrobe lineup. Here are some female specific comments on what is worn on one’s lower half. Regarding sizing: muffin tops are created because you are wearing the wrong size bottom, not because of your body type. Buy the size that fits right. No one likes muffin tops — especially in court. Regarding length: get the appropriate hem. You don’t want to be the butt of high water jokes if your pants are too short or trip over the bottoms if they’re dragging on the ground because they’re too long. Regarding fit: if your regular walking stride is shortened because of your skirt, you should probably considering selecting something less fitted. I know I’ve never been looking at man’s suit pants and thought, “Hmm . . . he’s really squeezing into those.”
Dresses: While a suit of some kind is more on par with what men wear in court, I am not opposed to the dress as an item of professional wear for women, provided that it is actually professional. Its formality should be paralleled to that of a suit. If you can wear it to the beach, prom or the bar, don’t wear it to court. Don’t. If you would wear it to brunch, don’t wear it to court. If you are wearing a dress in a courtroom, it should be of such a professional caliber that others can quickly and easily distinguish you as a professional and an attorney, as they can with male attorneys in suits, and not as some trashy witness.
Footwear: Don’t wear heels if you can’t walk in them. Nothing looks dumber than you and your gummy ankles. Don’t wear heels that are too high. If you have to ask if they’re too high, they’re too high. If you wear flats, don’t shuffle — pick up your damn feet. One shoe that isn’t okay, in my opinion, is wedges with the cork or rope platforms. What about cork or rope projects professionalism? Nothing, unless you’re a professional cork or rope maker. And finally, flip flops. I can’t believe I have to say this, but I actually saw a female attorney in court last week in a pair of those $2.50 Old Navy flip flops. If a male attorney walked into a courtroom in those, no one would think it was okay.
What I’m advocating for is that female attorneys present themselves professionally in the courtroom, in clothing and make up and shoes that put them on the same level of professional appearance as their male suit wearing counterparts. Of course there’s a common comeback here, that in general men have less to worry about regarding courtroom attire. And they have less to worry about because the standard for men’s court apparel has been set, the requirements are more or less clearly delineated and fairly easy to follow. However, this doesn’t mean that women should cave because of the extra effort required. Most of these things are not hard. They’re common sense. Your attire should be flattering, not distracting, and should project authority and confidence. You want people to remember your legal capability, not your wardrobe malfunction.
Author Note: I know I’m not the first person to discuss what women wear to court. For further reading, see the following: a piece on the definition of business casual (via ConstitutionalDaily) in May 2011; a panel in April 2010; and two female bloggers’ comments on the panel discussion (via abovethelaw) while another blog chose to comment on their comments.
Post image from Shutterstock