The Way These Women Dress Is Criminal

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.

15 thoughts on “The Way These Women Dress Is Criminal”

  1. I’m less concerned about women lawyers who dress sexy and more concerned with lawyers who look like appearing in court interrupted their landscaping project.

  2. I feel for the women trial lawyers. No matter how effective they are, some woman on the jury, (and yes, it’s always the women jurors), is going to be critical of her attire. In a prolonged trial, the attorney’s performance will outlast the clothing issues, but in a short trial, clothing, hair, shoes, nail polish, dress length, pantyhose, will be subject for jury consideration, comment and condemnation. I suggest uniforms and powdered wigs be mandated for all trial attorneys, both male and female.

      • You are spot on Spence! I tried a habitual violent offender for a stabbing and one of the surveys returned by a juror at the close of the trial commented on my suit choices for the 4 days of trial and nothing else. Good grief! Perhaps the State should give Assistant District Attorneys a clothing allowance!

  3. I’ve spent the last 20 years in courtrooms. The way women attorneys dress in court would not even crack my top 100 list of courtroom problems.

  4. Men can wear the same thing every day for a year without comment. Women have a self-imposed code of variety and dressing differently from other women. My advice would be 1. be clean & neat 2. show no more body flesh than possible (keep it all hands and face); 3. no flashy look-at-me colors or color schemes. Imagine female funeral parlor workers, if you can, or just dress for a funeral and you can’t go wrong. Oh yes, and carry a briefcase, not a purse.

  5. As a proud cowboy-boot wearing female attorney (and athlete who can’t walk in heels without tipping over face-first), I wonder which, pray tell, jurisdiction has an aversion to cowboy boots? In such places, I’ll forego the boots in favor of comments from male colleagues when I wear my mens-inspired Oxfords (thank you, Cole Haan, for designing a shoe for women which doesn’t cause plantar fasciitis).

    • I often joke that if I had thought more about the fact that being a trial lawyer requires wearing a suit, I might not have gone to law school at all. I don’t like wearing suits. The job requires me to wear a suit, so I wear a suit. It’s not so hard.

      I have no idea what jurisdiction would not allow me in the courtroom in cowboy boots; thank goodness the great County of Buncombe is not so narrow-minded, there is a whole law firm of cowgirl attorneys up there at The Hart Law Group. Public Defender Lawrence Campbell of Durham wears boots most days, I think, and I don’t know that the court has ever suffered because of it.

      The real issue that Shea’s post doesn’t really get at is that wome, particularly young women, are criticized for dressing too provocatively for court, and provacative is, like pornography, in the eye of the beholder. One knows it when one — usually he — sees it. To borrow from my feminist theory friends, this is problematic, as this effectively codifies the supremacy of the male gaze in determining professional dress codes for folks who present as female in the courtroom. The fact that we are having this conversation at all is a sign of how far we yet have to go in terms of gender equality.

  6. I have seen male attorneys told they could not enter a plea on behalf of a client because they were not wearing a tie. Female attorneys do not seem to have a basement for their attire. I would think if you wear what you wore for Moot Court in law school you would be safe.

    • Many years ago my attorney in a child custody case walked out of his house that morning with a tie or jacket, and was worried until I took my tie and jacket off and offered them to him. After the hearing, I got my tie back but the jacket fit him far better than me so I insisted he keep it…I prevailed in the case and was happy to help…I told him to keep a spare in his trunk!!

  7. In Wake County I haven’t noticed an attire problem since District Court Judge Susan Renfer caused a stink over a female attorney’s attire almost 20 years ago. Judge Renfer was acquitted of the assault charge which arose in connection with the attire dispute but was forced to resign from the bench.

    I have felt a twinge of jealousy at the sight of female attorneys getting away with wearing t-shirts to District Court, but my twinge of jealousy is no one’s problem. Besides, I recognize that those attorneys looked stylish in t-shirts & I would look like a slob if I wore a t-shirt to court.

    • OMG- I’m the lawyer Mr. Rand referred to in his comment regarding Susan Renfer. Along with my Judicial Standards complaint against her for assaulting me, she had about 20 other Judicial Standards complaints which led her to decide to quit, rather than be officially removed from the bench. Ahh, memories…..


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