Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"She Wore What?" Dress Codes and the Male Critique of Women's Presentation of their Bodies

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 I mean, I know it’s outdated but there are some old fogeys in Arizona!”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. 


Sonja said...

Your post reminds me of the lecture we received on the first day of moot court from our male professor. He lectured in depth on what women attorneys should wear. He was generous to include not only clothing advice but makeup advice as well -- "everyone knows that women look better with some makeup, but not too much." It was infuriating to say the least.

As an aside, I also feel like there are size-ist undertones to conversations around professionalism standards for women's wear. Our image of an ideal professional woman is generally of someone who is thin and attractive. Professionalism dress codes impose sexist, as well as size-ist standards.

Amanda said...

Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance seems readily apparent in the way the legal profession polices fashion. It's crazy to me that even in 2016, a judge would take offense to a woman wearing something other than a skirt or dress. I understand that the way we dress can be a sign of respect, but that still doesn't fully explain why a woman would have to wear a skirt. Pantsuits are equally respectable—unless, of course, you're offended by women who don't conform to the most conservative view of women's place in the courtroom.

RC said...

The demand to appear traditionally "feminine" to older, conservative judges has always bothered me, as I always insist on wearing a tie to court and appearing what some would say is "masculine." What I noticed about straying from the "feminine" norm is that there is extra pressure to make sure that your alternative presentation is flawless so that you don't attract ANY criticism; if you wear a tie, you have to wear it better than men do, with the perfect knot, at the perfect length, with a perfect pattern/color match. That way, you can't be criticized for looking "sloppy" because you technically did everything "right."

But overall, much like I said in my "Stop Telling Women to Smile," post, once society crosses into the territory of unnecessarily policing women's appearance and behavior, such interference with female autonomy is unacceptable. Echoing Amanda's sentiment, I agree that there's a discernible difference between "respectable/professional" and "accommodating someone else's narrow view of how women are supposed to dress."

Liz said...

Thanks for your post. I do recall reading about Judge Royce's comments and feeling that it was pretty unfair for him to require that female attorneys dress in a certain way like wearing dress skirts versus wearing dress pants. The fact that there is a certain expectation on how female attorneys should appear is bizarre to me. This is a double standard because male attorneys are not expected to dress a certain way.

A few years ago I also read about how Los Angeles' Loyola Law School told its female law students that they could not wear certain types of heels and skirts needed to be a certain length. While I understand the need for law students to dress professionally, I am amazed at how practitioners and others within the legal community can so easily police women's appearance. The older men within the legal profession stop worrying about the appearance of their own female colleagues especially when there are more important issues to fight for like institutionalized racism.

Jenna said...

What always surprises me (though you would think at this point I would have few things to be surprised about regarding systematic and widespread sexism) is how early the policing of women's and girl's clothing choices begins. In high schools and middle schools nation wide, schools tend to provide many more rules and regulations for girls' dress then for boys. Additionally, the enforcement of these dress codes tends to be disproportionately enforced against girls. These disparities target girls by sexualizing them, body-shaming, them and blaming them for any sexual harassment they may experience. I am still always impressed with the young women and girls who not only recognize the inherent unfairness and sexism that exists in these codes but who also actually take action to change these long held cultural and institutional norms.

India Powell said...

Like Sonja, your post immediately reminds me of that first day in Moot Court last year...it's truly appalling an educator would find that kind of sexist rhetoric to be appropriate. Of course, the entire legal profession is full of sexist bias, but if there is one that really affects us all every day, it's attire. And it's very interesting how different work environment within the legal field call for different levels of "dress code." For instance, when I worked at a public defender's office my first summer, the dress code was quite casual and, in a female dominated office, very accepting of personal style and preference. Flash forward a year to working in a high rise fancy law firm, in an office dominated by old men, and I found myself second guessing my outfit almost every morning. And the most upsetting part? Doing the somewhat subconscious balancing test of "wear what I want" vs. "maybe get fired."