When I was a summer associate, we had the opportunity to join the Chief Judge of the Federal District Court for lunch. We all dressed in our federal suits (dark suit, closed toe shoes, stockings) and marched over to the courthouse.
The Chief encouraged us to ask questions and one brave summer associate raised his hand. “Do you have to wear a tie in federal court,” he asked.
All eyes turned to this young man. He was not wearing a tie. The iudge was kind in his response. “You don’t have to,” he said, “but why distract the judge with questions about why you aren’t wearing a tie? If you wear a tie, the judge will just focus on your arguments.”
This young man has forever earned a place in my memory as “no tie guy.” And I remain grateful to “no tie guy” for eliciting the Judge’s advice.
You see, I have frequently struggled with being a female version of a “no tie guy” myself. I absolutely detest wearing suits.
Why? I think it started during my first on-campus interviews: You’d don your suit at 8 in the morning, interview all day, and then collapse at home before writing thank you notes to everyone you had just met. After sweating anxiously in my suit all day, I wanted nothing more than to burn it.
Moreover, while I’m not particularly frugal, dry cleaning costs strike me as excessive. You don’t even have the fun of buying new clothes; you’re paying only to get your own old clothes back. Inevitably, I find myself wondering if something really does need to be dry cleaned and then playing a version of Russian roulette with the item and my washing machine.
Sometimes it works; sometimes you end up with a suit that would only fit Barbie, but I know that with any suit, the siren song of the washing machine will eventually come calling.
Dress up without suiting up
Finally, as dear friends have noted, I’m hard on clothing. I’m a walker. After work, I’ll frequently kick off my work shoes and throw on sneakers or flip flops (weather depending) with my suit pants and walk around a lake. My exercise leads to fraying of suit cuffs, and there’s a limit to the amount of times a tailor can hem the cuffs without it looking like you’re waiting for a flood. In Minnesota, the problem is only compounded by salt and sand stains.
As a result of my clear anti-suit bias, I initially eschewed the suit whenever possible. During my clerkship, we were permitted to wear blue jeans when our judge was out of the office. Without fail, however, any day that I elected to wear the coveted blue jeans, I would run into at least three other judges in the hallways. Finally, it occurred to me that if I was feeling shamed by my clothing choices, or felt the need to duck into the restroom instead of saying hello to one of our friendly members of the federal judiciary, I had a problem.
Elena Kagan’s and Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination hearings finally provided me some insight for a solution. Both women sported snazzy separates — a colorful blazer with professional looking black pants. This was a look I could rock that did not involve sporting a traditional suit. (And they were both lawyers! On the Supreme Court! So it must be okay.) Since this epiphany, I’ve noticed that similar looks are favored by women throughout the halls of government: Hillary Clinton has been seen sporting a colorful jacket and black pants along with Condoleezza Rice and Jennifer Granholm. The look really seems to hit its stride when coupled with grownup accoutrements: scarves, dressy earrings or necklaces. I figure that if I am generally dressed up people won’t notice that I’m not wearing a traditional suit.
Where to go for help
To study the look, I’ve turned to the internet for education and inspiration. Personal favorites include:
• corporette.com. (“fashion, lifestyle and career advice for overachieving chicks”). Corporette posts work-appropriate clothing daily, along with entertaining conversations about the appropriateness of open-toed shoes in the courtroom.
• theworkingwardrobe.com. The site offers career-based fashion advice for both women and men and provides updates regarding recent trends (colorful ballet flats anyone?).
• workchic.com/blog. The site assembles work-appropriate outfits so that you don’t have to.
I’ve also contemplated giving up completely and outsourcing my wardrobe selection. Companies like CakeStyle will interview you to determine your fashion preferences, pick outfits for your perusal, deliver them to your door, and even include a video walking you through each outfit. If I try it, I’ll let you know how it goes.
What about the men? My most fashionable male attorney friend, an attorney at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, notes that when men make a fashion misstep it’s usually because their suits don’t fit or they’ve selected the wrong shoes. That said, he emphasized that it’s easy for men to succeed: all of the rules are on-line (he recommends www.askandyaboutclothes.com). If you’re heading to a store, it can be more difficult to find retailers in the know. A specialty shop — like Heimie’s Haberdashery in St. Paul — is the place to stop for an in-person consultation.
In brief, there are lots of resources to help both genders navigate the dangerous waters of legal fashion. Regardless, however, I try to keep the Chief Judge’s fashion advice in the forefront of my mind — I never want to wear anything that will leave a judge wondering about my outfit instead of my arguments.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.