Last month, I attended a mock trial competition in Arizona. A few weeks before we left, my male coach told our all-girl team “Just be sure to wear skirts, not pant suits. I mean, I know it’s outdated but there are some old fogeys in Arizona!” And he’s right – there are old fogeys in Arizona, and everywhere else. But just how far do we have to go to accommodate them? As attorneys, is it our responsibility to our clients to dress in a certain manner in order to be more convincing to old fogeys? (For the record, I wore my pantsuit in Arizona).By now, we’ve probably all heard of Tennessee Judge Royce Taylor who developed a dress code for female attorneys in his courtroom in 2013. The memo from the local bar association said the problem of appropriate female attire had arisen because “women attorneyswere not being held to the same standard as the men.” Females were expected to wear jackets “with sleeves below the elbow” or business attire. Sleeveless shirts and mini skirts were specifically prohibited; in fact, the judge held a few femaleattorneys in contempt of court for wearing inappropriate outfits.
Does focusing on appearance help the legal community maintain a certain level of professionalism, or does it simply reinforce social narratives about how women should present their bodies to the general public? Does tying the way that women dress to professionalism reinforce narratives about women’s sexuality, and perhaps specifically their ability to act outside of the sexuality that the male gaze persists in seeing, and policing?I may be extreme, but the message I’m hearing is this: If a woman wants to work in a professional space, she needs to restrain her sexuality to a sufficient extent that men are satisfied. Maybe that means jackets that cover the elbow; maybe that means closed toed shoes; maybe that means no mini skirts. Men and responsible women need to step in and tell these ladies how to clothe themselves adequately. School dress codes have also consistently treated “appropriate” dress in very gendered ways. Find an interesting perspectives here, and here.
Obviously, I am not advocating for provocative or sloppy dress in court, per se. I’m proud to be entering a very professional career, in a community with high expectations for practitioners. But I hope that over the course of my career, I will be perceived as an intelligent, effective advocate regardless of what I choose to wear on my body. I realize that I will be perceived by others in part based on what I choose to wear; I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want more control over those perceptions by deciding for myself what to wear and what message to send. Instead of being told what not to wear, I would appreciate making the choice for myself and allowing those on the bench or in the courtroom to decide how they feel about my advocacy for themselves.