"Girlfriends of the Court"

Do Clothes Make the (Wo)Man?

In Career, fashion, Guest Post, legal education, shoes, women on April 29, 2012 at 10:32 am
fashion, law, blog

Are we just reproducing the dominant paradigm?     *Mattel

The Culture of Professional Dressing 

There’s been a lot of talk on this blog here and here amongst others, of women’s (and some men’s) experiences as legal practitioners, in terms of what to wear.  We could ask why these posts are so popular with readers.  Is it because women love clothes?  (I mean – you know what women are like, right?)  Perhaps.  However I have another theory.

It’s about culture – in particular, the dominant culture of the law. Read on.

Consider this submission to the NSW Law Reform Commission in 1977 by Justice Hutley:

‘The effect of World War II was to open the legal profession to groups who had no historical connection with the profession… This influx, had resulted in ‘the flooding of the profession by persons who without either professional family association, or adequate indoctrination, have acquired the dangerous skills put into the hands of the lawyers’…

(cited in Richard L Abel & Phillip S C Lewis, Lawyers in Society: the Common Law World 1988, p273)

This is somewhat dated now, but I wonder whether these views continue to exist in the contemporary profession?  They represent a very strong view of the notion of who belongs in the profession, and who does not.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of government policy and the discourse in universities about graduate employability.  If you are a student, or have been in the last decade or so, you may be aware of graduate attributes of your institution or your particular degree.  This is part of what I’ll call the employability discourse.

‘Industry’ has identified skills and attitudes that it values in graduates;  things like team-work, independence, good communicator etc.  Universities have taken this on board, and a law degree now is designed not simply to cram students’ heads full of legal knowledge, but to have them graduate as (junior) functioning members of the profession.

In other words, law graduates (and other types of graduates) will be employable.  In Australia, it is possible to find rates of employment of university graduates – see here for example.  This is a much bigger enterprise in the UK and US where league tables exist.  In fact, in the US, there is presently legal action afoot against law schools that have allegedly misrepresented their graduate employment rates.

So you get your degree, you tick off the employability criteria or your graduate attributes and you look for a job.  But you may not land a job in the law, or in the place that you want, and if you do, there is something not quite right…  What happened to your employability?

I think this is where all the hidden aspects of legal practice come into play – the culture of the law.  And nowhere is it more apparent than in what you wear to work.  This might be a manifestation of what others call ‘cultural capital‘, an unquantifiable asset we gain by immersion. I think that this may impact upon employability (directly or indirectly) – but it is not only unstated in legal practice, it is unstated in universities’ employability criteria. You won’t know what it is that went wrong.

It may be hilarious to read the attire satire about the genesis of the wigs and gowns of the court – but this covers what I see as a serious barrier to those who are unfamiliar with the cultural traditions of the profession, and those who are different from what these cultural traditions represent.

In particular, this impacts on women, though it also includes anyone who isn’t able to reproduce the appearance of propriety and professionalism that the court garb or ‘professional wear’ represents.  This discussion on Twitter for example, illustrates that a lawyer’s appearance does matter. But this goes deeper than simply a gender issue.

For example, what if a man isn’t aware of the ‘language of ties’? (Or see here, or here or here).  What if, apart from colour, a male law graduate goes to an interview with a tie that is tied too short?  Does this affect his employability?

The fact that I suspect some men may also experience an ‘othering’ in the legal workplace through their choice of clothing indicates that the culture is not only gendered, but it is quite culturally specific – representing a type of person (man) who is to be replicated by the employee (graduate lawyer, other party etc) to gain acceptance.

The legal profession is so imbued with the nature and characteristics of a particular type of man and the way in which they think, that it is possibly still startling to see people who do not conform to the centuries-old form that is the legal professional. Do other professions require the same display of external conformity or cultural capital?

I think this is why women lawyers have so much to say about what they wear to work, and the responses to what they wear.

I also think that this is a gap in our understanding of what is ‘employability’ in terms of our law graduates.

What do you think? Is there a silent language or culture of dress that defines the legal profession and excludes others?

UPDATE: The Age/SMH ran another story on corporate fashion on 13.5.12, this time with a slightly different take on the issue: it comes with the subheading ‘Big business is under fire for its views on how young women should dress for success.’

Guest author Kate Galloway teaches law at James Cook University. You can follow her blog at Curl, and on twitter at @KatGallow.

  1. Here is an interesting example of the culture of the profession, and the expectations of uniformity. This profile of Supreme Court Justice Betty King makes much of her “her penchant for leopard-skin boots, her flamboyant glasses (once merely purple, later red and cats-eyed, and now huge white Elton John-style frames) and her brightly painted nails (known to be green and gold on key Australian sporting occasions)”. Of course it goes on to consider her pioneering role as a young barrister in the 1970’s, and her formidable intellect, and the story of her going into labour in front of a jury (no, she didn’t give birth in the Court). http://www.theage.com.au/news/in-depth/king-of-her-court/2007/11/17/1194767017489.html

  2. When I started off as a trainee solicitor in Glasgow in 1990 women were not permitted to wear trousers in my firm or elsewhere. I was told off for wearing drop earrings to court.

    In 1994 I left private practice to lecture law full time and wore what I considered to be professional lecturing – suit jackets and tailored skirts with a twist. I found that it was easier to be accepted by students when dressed well particularly as I was younger than quite a few of them at the time.

    In 1999 I was back in private practice and trousers were permitted.

    My last experience of a law firm was a year ago. I found that working for a female partner was even more restrictive in some ways than working for a male predominant firm. The manager had very distinct and controlling opinions about skirt lengths, hosiery and so on. By that time I was pretty much over being told what to do and how to dress and that I didn’t meet up to the silent dress code.

    Reading about the lady that Melissa refers to in the comment above warms my heart. I love eccentrics and I love fearless people with their own sense of style. If I were to come across a flamboyantly dressed, ferociously smart female barrister with a sense of humour I would immediately trust her compared with someone else who was trying to conform or blend in. Of course since I am not in the position to give work to anyone now, my opinions are largely irrelevant 😉

    • Thanks @Gabfran, I think I agree with you about the concerns with conformity, and the severity of the silent code. Of course your opinions are extremely relevant, because as a ‘recovering lawyer’ you speak authentically and freely! Now just wait till you meet Justice King one day!

  3. Reblogged this on Caveat Calcei and commented:
    As many of you know I am a lawyer in recovery or rehabilitation (per Kate Carruthers https://twitter.com/#!/kcarruthers). Accordingly it is with some relief and a bit of fatigued surprise that the silent dress code police are alive and well and picking on women in the legal profession.

  4. I remember the first time I went in a uni moot, wondering where all the other kids got their perfectly fitted expensive suits from. My team mate was wearing her mum’s oversize jacket with 90s shoulder pads and I’d bought a shirt to go with my work (waitressing) pants because my mum had never had a job that required a suit. Of course most of the people we were competing against went to private schools and had owned a suit for most of their lives.
    Working in a commercial firm I was constantly shocked at how often clothing was discussed by men and women and the amount that was spent (one suit could buy my car).
    The legal world is cliquey and still dominated by those from the wealthiest backgrounds. But it is changing and I think the obsession with dress has a lot to do with the perceived insult of interlopers like women and common folk taking over the profession. I guess those interlopers are particularly scary if they come with a fierce intellect and a lack of desire to conform (thanks King J for putting the wind up them).

  5. Remember a barrister turning up in a topee & safari suit for a hearing in front of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner in the NT in the late 1970’s. No-one was sure if he was taking the pith (sorry about the pun, but its a true story 😉 ).
    Dave Parsons (now Parsons, J. of the Vic County Court) fronted up to court in his football shorts after training on one occasion for a bail hearing and on another wore a cowboy shirt (with tie) in court on the grounds that it was his birthday.

    At about the same time counsel appearing in the Alice Springs court got decidedly wary about wearing wigs & gowns after a dissatisfied client confused one legally clad man addressing the bench for another after an unsuccessful matrimonial case and shot and wounded local lawyer Ted Skuse, who had nothing to do with the case, instead of his own “brief”.

    There is a serious side to all this, though. While there no doubt are situations where there is value in court formality of process and dress there are many, many others where such things are unnecessarily pompous and intimidating to those that the legal process should generally really be all about – the clients, the accused, the victims, the witnesses, the people whose problems the courts are there to deal with.

    Yes, law is theatre, and I’m sure the costumes & stage props come in handy, but not every “play” is best served by a “power dressing” wardrobe, let alone the anachronistic nonsense involved in the cult of formal “court dress”.

  6. I wonder, too, who lawyers think they are dressing FOR? Many of today’s judges are from my own era, when earlier pomposities and formalism were under serious question everywhere. Yes, the “back to the 50’s” New Conservatism of recent times is a factor, but that is not where most of the judges come from.

    Most human clients, witnesses etc, simply get put off, or over-awed and doubly nervous, when confronted by people parading around in power suits. Sure, corporate clients no doubt love it (and play the same silly game), but that doesn’t cut it with your kid on a joy riding charge. You just make him twice as terrified. No doubt part of the game if you are trying to slot him, but worse than useless if you are his brief. Same with an elderly Indigenous woman trying to explain complex traditional interests to a hostile seeming court.

    When it isn’t the judge & it isn’t the client you are aiming your clothing at it is pretty clearly simply part of the breast beating game with fellow lawyers. Arms race stuff, with no real human value. Is that the game lawyers really want to be part of?

  7. Just by the way, if you think spivy clothes are needed for success, take a look at the photo of a court hearing in http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/indigenous/pubs/annualreports/aboriginal_land_comm_reports/anmatjirra/Documents/06.PDF at para 73 (p10) . That’s High Court Justice to be, John Toohey, in the terry towelling hat; Vic County Court Judge to be, Ross Howie, in the open necked shirt next to him; a long haired anthropologist lout with initials RH next to him; and Graham Hiley (now QC), beside me. Not sure about me, but I don’t think a lack of sartorial rigidity at the time did the three legal beagles any harm at all in their subsequent careers! 😉

  8. […] ongoing debate [including on this blog] about the whether women in the law should conform to the dominant male legal culture often plays […]

  9. […] to their appearance, what is happening in the workplace?  The responses to previous posts on this blog about women’s working garb indicate that women, particularly in law, continue to feel controlled […]

  10. […] Do clothes make the (wo)man? […]

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