Sunday, November 7, 2010

Do Clothes Make the Woman?

“Last night, I got into a HUGE argument with the director of my mock trial team. He told us to wear skirt suits in case "there were any male judges or jurors." I LOST IT. First I said, "Excuse me?" to which he responded: "its not me -- its just how it works." to which I responded: "F*ck how it works! -- and went on from there...."

The prior statement was in an email sent by one of my friends in law school sent last week. I could spend this entire blog post parsing through the actions and interactions, but I think the most compelling statement here is “it’s not me – it’s just how it works.” When I was applying for jobs last year, and finally got one working for a judge, the first statement my career services office told me was to make sure I wore a skirt suit to work everyday because it was too formal to risk a pant suit. The first thing I thought to myself was what century are we living in? Truthfully, for me, I have always felt uncomfortable wearing a skirt suit to interviews. I have long legs, and any skirt I wear looks considerably shorter than it should, which then results in the other limitation of clothing for job interviews – looking too slutty. I feel comfortable in pants, I look professional, and truthfully while the clothes matter in the end isn’t it what I say and how my resume looks that matters in the end?

During the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton came under criticism for her penchant for pantsuits. In her article, Robin Givhan the Washington Post’s style editor, stated, “What would possess a woman to wear a jacket the color of a geranium in full bloom and then imply she doesn't want anyone to notice or comment on her clothes?” This, of course was also in reference to her preference for brightly colored pantsuits. Givhan does bring up the very obvious point: why are we talking about Hillary Clinton’s clothes in the first place?

It is incredibly evident that clothes matter and especially in the professional context. But what does this say about it being “just the way it works?” What women wear seems to be notoriously influential – look at the phenomenon surrounding Michelle Obama or even the contentious nature of Elena Kagan’s garments. Ultimately, clothing does reflect a statement upon how you view yourself and how you want others to perceive you, but do we fail to give due credit to the implications of what we wear? For example, when considering the issue of banning veils, the tendency is to associate it with religious freedom and the choice a woman has to practice her religion. However, there are many elements of coercion, and the alternate perception that wearing a veil reflects religious fundamentalism. Thus, a choice on what a person wears isn’t purely a choice – rather it is cemented in societal perceptions. Regardless of the motivations of what a woman wears, the implications of that choice will eventually fit into the pre-ordained brackets that women are supposed to fit into in society.

Perhaps this is reading far too much into what clothing symbolizes, but it is a contentious subject. Defining whether one is a “slut” or “too religious” is reflected in the choice that a woman makes when she purchases a piece of clothing and decides to wear it in public. In the context of women or men as lawyers, if “this is just the way it works” when is the point that it stops working this way?


Rebecca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca said...

There are several dimensions that come to mind when I ponder the subject of women, wardrobe and work.

First, there is the issue of wardrobe and identity. Whether your style is conservative or slutty, avante guard or bohemian, chances are it is going to produce assessments of you in the workplace. The real question is what identity do you want to produce and is your wardrobe consistent with that?
Having worked in business at the corporate executive level, I can recall conversations about the decline in dress code compliance particularly by female new hires. Once, I was assigned to “coach” a young woman regarding her office attire. She wore incredibly short skirts and low cut blouses and “evening” makeup. The men in the office were “distracted” during meetings and other executives were concerned about how she appeared to clients. This is understandable. Your appearance and physical presence show up before you utter a word or submit any work product. When I broached the subject with her, she honestly believed she was being “fashionable” and “cute”. She was unaware that she was producing a negative t in her career. When she figured out that she wanted to be assessed for her work and not her wardrobe, she began to dress in a less sexually provocative manner.

Second, there is the issue of cost. The issue of women, wardrobe and work shifts dramatically depending on class. Expenses related to clothing can be prohibitive for women without means, to “fit in” within some business environments. Clothing can then trigger morale issues. Expenses related to clothes can adversely impact women in office settings when dress codes disproportionately burden women.

Third, there is a disparity between women and men in the same profession. Women are expected to wear a different outfit every day. Men can get by with just changing a shirt and tie. Look at the average cost for a first year female law associates professional wardrobe compared to their male counter-parts. A much higher percentage of their income will be spent on clothing. Women will also have higher costs related to dry cleaning. Not only do they have more clothing to be cleaned, but the cost for dry cleaning a women’s garment is frequently higher than a man’s.

Second wave feminism encouraged women to dress like a man to avoid objectivism. New wave feminism or "lipstick feminism” encouraged women to glam it up -be gorgeous and all that you can be.

I think we each have a right to dress in a way that expresses our individual style. I don’t think we need to all put on a lawyer uniform. At the same time, I believe it is important to be mindful of what public identity we are trying to generate. As long our wardrobe does not detract from our career goals for ourselves, we should feel confident in expressing ourselves with our clothing.

Yazzyjazzy said...

N.P. - I think this is one of your best blog posts as you have so eloquently described the issue.

It is so true that we are so quick to emphasize and define important women based on such superficial things, such as how they dress. And its so easy to forget a women's intellectual qualities and substantive contributions to society. If you think about it, Hillary was also made fun of a lot for having "cankles" (no ankles, just legs and calves). This is just another example of society trying to hide her intellect by accentuating her physique.

Alcestis said...

Partial to skirt suits, I never really thought about whether or not I was playing into anyone else's perceptions but my own. Reflecting on my past summer as a court extern, however, you're post hits close to home.

I worked in a chamber dominated by women, four female clerks and one male judge. These women were brilliant. Each clerk graduated at the top of her class from a top 10 law school and researched and wrote opinions like it was nothing. Nevertheless, the chamber seemed to be known more for its appearance and clothing. Hanging out with externs and staff members from other chambers, who all happened to be male, I was often told how lucky I was to get to work with "hot" attorneys. I was even once privy to a conversation about the best type of skirt that fit my supervising attorney. Yet, in all our lunch time gatherings, we never once mentioned, let a lone discussed, the appearance of a male clerk.

Clothes and appearance do reflect how you perceive yourself and how you want others to perceive you. However, for a woman there is a different kind of societal pressure that takes away any implication of choice.