Loyola Law School would like to remind its female students to button up. "I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I? Yet I'm getting complaints from supervisors," the school's externship director told students in a recent memo.
The memo comes from a long legal tradition of professors, judges and fellow attorneys schooling female lawyers on just how to dress. Prior to the 1980s, it would have been scandalous for a lady lawyer to approach the bench wearing pants. Pantsuits are acceptable now, but the expansion of wardrobe possibilities for female attorneys has not made their choices any less political.
In 2010, the Chicago Bar Association held a "What Not to Wear Fashion Show" that convened a group of judges, law professors and law students to nitpick (mostly) female courtroom fashions as models sashayed down the runway.
And at a Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting in 2009, a panel of judges and lawyers convened to gripe about all of the sexy ladies in their midst. Judge Benjamin Goldgar of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois explained that female lawyers dressing too sexily is "a huge problem" and that "you don't dress in court as if it's Saturday night and you're going out to a party."
In 2010, Ann Farmer wrote a piece for the American Bar Association's Perspectives magazine on the confusing, and sometimes contradictory, standards facing female lawyers. Women in other male-dominated fields, like business, technology or journalism, are rarely so scrutinized; some are even celebrated for their embrace of brightly colored dresses and stiletto heels. Why are the clothes female attorneys wear still contested territory?
It's partly because the law moves slowly, and older male judges still reign behind most benches. It's also because "women lawyers today are faced with many more fashion choices than male lawyers and, therefore, have more opportunities to screw up," Farmer writes.
Even less staid judges have conflicting personal tastes. As Chief Judge Carla Craif of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern Division of New York told Farmer: "The color pink, no. Hoop earrings - I have seen those. And they looked great, actually." And while men have plenty of older colleagues setting an example for them, many law firms still lack female partners who can show the rookies how it's done. (Only 4 percent of the top 200 law firms in the U.S. have female managing partners.)
Judges who school female attorneys on how to dress are annoying, and the limitless choices of the female wardrobe are confusing. But having the opportunity to dress differently can also have its benefits. Lynn told Farmer that while a bold fashion choice was a risky move, it "could draw attention to you and away from your opponent" in a positive way. A recent Harvard Business School study found that while dressing distinctly might compromise a person's access to "shared group identity and automatic group trust," it can also make her appear confident and influential. In 2009, a federal judge complained that he'd seen an attorney argue her case looking like she'd stopped in "on her way home from the gym." Then again, that woman won her case.
"One rule of court is: The higher the court, the more formal the dress," Farmer writes. There are some regional variations: Standards of dress tend to be more relaxed in West Coast courts, seersucker is more acceptable in the South, and Delaware courts require attorneys to dress in shades of black and white.
Until the 1970s, the Supreme Court required attorneys to wear "morning dress" - an outfit of "striped trousers, gray ascot, waistcoat and a cutaway morning coat," and the Office of the Solicitor General kept up the tradition after the court abolished it. When Elena Kagan became solicitor general, she bucked tradition, choosing to wearing a pantsuit instead of a feminized version of morning dress. Now, when Kagan shows up at the court, she's wearing the robe.
Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.