I’ve been married to a man for sixteen years. That makes me an expert in men’s dress. If the occasion is formal—an important meeting at work, a cocktail party, a wedding, or a funeral—he wears a suit and tie. If the dress is business casual, he wears slacks and a dress shirt. If we’re going to a ball game, he wears a Carolina t-shirt and a pair of shorts with pockets (so he has a place to put his wallet and phone).
That same man has been married to me for lo these many years. But he couldn’t rattle off the same dress code for me. (I know because on several occasions over the last decade and a half, I’ve asked about the appropriate dress for women. He always responds by telling me to ask some other woman attendee what she plans to wear.)
But while it may not be easy to tell women what to wear, there are plenty of folks with opinions about what women ought not to wear, especially women lawyers. Indeed, Slate ran an article last week provocatively headlined, “Female Lawyers Who Dress Too ‘Sexy’ Are Apparently a ‘Huge Problem’ in the Courtroom.” A federal bankruptcy judge quoted in the article probably thought he was being helpful when he advised that “‘you don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party.’” This might help some women, but, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m not sure what the dress code is for a party on Saturday night. If he is talking about the jeans and sweater I usually wear, then I’m totally with him. I’d never wear that to court. It’s not dressy enough.
At any rate, there is no need to harp on the comments of this particular judge. Slate reports similarly confusing advice from others, including a female judge, who apparently has an aversion to pink attire but is fine with hoop earrings. And I’ve heard plenty of home-grown complaints about how women dress in North Carolina courtrooms. Shoes apparently are an issue. Cowboy boots are off-limits for women. (I’m not sure about men.) Some consider open-toed shoes unprofessional. Others are concerned with whether women’s heels are sufficiently covered.
All this angst over what women wear isn’t anything particularly new. One of my colleagues told me that on a Friday afternoon thirty years ago, she was sitting in her law firm office when a judge called her to court. She said to the judge: “But I’m wearing pants.” And he said, “By golly, I hope you’re wearing pants. I need you in my courtroom in fifteen minutes.”
It does seem, though, that these days criticism of women attorneys’ dress is more pointed and pervasive. My colleague Michael Crowell frequently teaches sessions on the law of contempt. A scenario he commonly mentions is whether a judge may hold a person in contempt for her failure to adhere to a sign printed on the wall of the courtroom requiring “proper courtroom dress.” Michael always casts the offending person as a spectator. Someone in the classroom always re-casts the person as a female lawyer. (For those who want to know the answer to the question Michael poses, the inappropriately dressed person typically has received insufficient notice that her attire is improper; thus, the person has not committed a willful act of the sort required to establish contempt. See G.S. 5A-11(a).)
Perhaps standards are slipping. On the other hand, things may be looking up if this is one of the legal profession’s greatest current challenges.