Friday, April 16, 2010

Thoughts on Professional Garb

Edited to Add: Check out Corporette for great professional fashion tips for women all types of professional environments.

I don't usually present wardrobe diatribes... While always happy to offer up advice when asked, ITPitB is a daily diary of personal style - an anthropological study of one individual's closet, if you will.  Pretty simply said... love it or hate it, this is what I wear.  But a little article on Above the Law made a big stir this week, and having accidentally become an ancillary part of the backlash / response, I figured I'd throw my own two cents into the fray!

Read the full article here...

And responses here, here, and here.  {Uggg, Lipstick Application Pre-Photo-Taking officially beings NOW!}

I won't rehash the article or the responses since they are linked above, but it seems readers' largest gripe (both with the original ATL article as well as official and/or unspoken office wardrobe protocol) is the seemingly endless list of rules for female professional attire (attorneys specifically, but I think the concepts easily translate).  To an extent, I agree - there are a lot more rules for women than there are for men.  Of course the flip side of the coin is that men basically have zero options when it comes to business attire, with suit + dress shirt + tie being the standard uniform.  The biggest fashion hurdle most professional men face on a daily basis is trying to remember if black or brown shoes go with charcoal suits (the answer to this riddle being black, btw).  Women, on the other hand, have lots of options... 
  • Skirt or pants?
  • Flats or heels?
  • Button-up or blouse? 
  • Is a dress appropriate?  
  • Do I have to wear a jacket? 
  • Do I have to wear pantyhose? 
  • Hair up or down?
  • And what about jewelry? 
Personally, I love options!  I'd be bored to tears if the professional uniform for women consisted solely of a pant-suit and a button-down.  Yet because our work wardrobe isn't so clearly delineated, more and more "guidelines" start cropping up to combat the desire to push the boundaries too far.  And yes, there are other  "guidelines" - more like relics of sexism - that have no real modern purpose.   As a female attorney who adores fashion and looking stylish but also wants to present a capable and professional face to coworkers and clients, these are my thoughts on today's "guidelines," as well as my personal professional fashion rubric...**

**As you might imagine, the following will be most applicable to female attorneys, obvs. 

Interviews / Court

Credo #1: Keep It Simple & Conservative 
  • Now is the time for your sparkling personality to show through... not your sparkling statement necklace. Wear a suit, a button-up or a blouse, and close-toed pumps in a neutral color (black, brown, navy, nude). 
  • Your suit should be dark (black, brown, gray, navy), conservatively cut, and well-tailored.  Some people will tell you that women should be in skirts... (a) I think that's sexist bollucks, and (b) if you feel more comfortable and confident in pants, you'll perform better anyway.  I happen to prefer skirts, but I've interviewed (and been offered clerkships / jobs) and appeared in court (and prevailed on hearings) in both skirts and pants - lightning did not strike me dead (although, read below at Credo #2: Recognize Your Surroundings & Office Culture).  
  • If I'm wearing a skirt to appear in court or to interview, I suck it up and put on the pantyhose (please, please, please no Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders "Suntan" Style - stick with sheer black or sheer nude). Sexist "guideline"?  Yes!  However, this is not a battle I wish to pick... I prefer being "An Attorney Who Is Employed And/Or Wins Her Points In Court, rather than "An Attorney Who Stood Up To The Man And Now Folds Sweaters At The GAP."  (See also Credo #4: You Chose This Profession, Remember?).  Maybe that makes me "part of the problem," but I don't lose sleep over wearing pantyhose for a couple of hours every so often.  
  • Shoes... so begins "The Red Shoe Debate."  I own red patent pumps and I love them to pieces.  They have a relatively low heel (2.5 inches - I usually wear more like 3.5 - 4 inches) and a classic round toe. I wear them to work constantly, and it's possible I've worn them to court before.  No one's ever branded me with a Scarlet S, but... BUT.  Err on the side of caution in your most formal professional settings and stick with classic colors.  Shoes should also be polished (also note that patent is easier to keep looking sharp than regular leather or suede) - the shoe-shiner is not just for men!  You can chatter all you want about flats during interviews and in court, but I'm on Team Pump.  
  • Jewelry should be subdued and classic.  People who tell you to remove your wedding rings might have some ground to stand on, but like those who shout "No pants suits for the ladies!," I disregard this advice.  I'm married and I wear a ring - I'm not going to pretend otherwise. {Caveat: Jury Trials... if you have a huge diamond, you might consider wearing your wedding band alone 'lest some misinformed juror peg you as a money-grubbing attorney.}  
  • Color - I'm not afraid of it in formal business settings.  I embrace jewel tones and patterns (so long as they don't distract).  I think a pop of color or a pretty patterned blouse (or... GASP!... even a well-placed ruffle) can add to your presence and make you stand out.  However, if you're unsure, just play it safe for now... you can experiment once you have the job! 
  • Hair should be neat.  I don't know who thinks ponytails are the work of Satan but apparently those people are out there... I wear ponytails, hair half back, chignons, hair down and straight, hair down and curled, headbands, and French braids alike and see no problem with any of these styles so long as they are polished and do not create a distraction. 
Everyday Office Attire / General Musings

Credo #2: Recognize Your Surroundings & Office Culture
  • Who do you work for?  Big Law? Small firm? Non-Profit? Corporation?  My attire at my current non-profit job is a bit more relaxed than it was at my old firm (although, I had a lot of leeway with accessories and different outfit elements there as well).  Start with the dress code laid out in the manual and then look around you.  If your office's dress code is Business Attire and every other female attorney comes dressed in a formal suit on a daily basis, follow suit (ha! pun!).  Only you can make the determination on branching out with colored shoes, larger jewelry, non-suiting dresses, etc - use your best judgment and make an educated decision (See also Credo #3: Remove Head from Ass, then Clothe Yourself). 
  • Where do you work? Regional trends are important considerations as well.  In Charleston, an attorney in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes fits right in.  In San Fransisco, visible, non-ear piercings might be a-okay.  {Yes, I realize I'm stereotyping, but I think you get my drift.}  I live in Texas... some years we wear shorts on Christmas Eve and come May through September, you're going to be sweating like a whore in church if you're wearing pantyhose on a daily basis.  Thus, I've never worn pantyhose in the summer unless its for an interview / court (and then those suckers peel right off the moment I get in the car).  
  • Who will you be working with? Maybe the whispers by the coffee pot indicate that The Powers That Be don't care for women in pants.  Lamesauce?  Yes.  Pig-Headed?  Yes.  But that's your current reality - you can either suck it up and buy some skirts, rebel with pants and see how far your career progresses in that particular environment, or find a new job.  I'm not saying it's right - it isn't - but life's tough and there continues to be superiors (and judges), both male and female, who prefer women in skirts, or think hose are 100% required 100% of the time (See also Credo #4: You Chose This Profession, Remember?).  
Credo #3: Remove Head from Ass, then Clothe Yourself. 
  • Do we really need to be told not to wear mini-skirts, hooker boots, and deep v-necks?  From some of the comments on the articles... Apparently so, but come on!  Purchase articles of clothing in the proper size (tailor them if necessary) and made of high-quality materials (suits in wool blends, shirts in cotton or silk / steer clear of high synthetic fiber content).  No visible bra straps and no gaping buttons.  
  • Clients shell out big bucks for your services.  Would you pay someone wearing thigh-high boots $400 an hour?  Um, er, scratch that... Would you pay someone wearing thigh-high boots $400 an hour FOR LEGAL SERVICES?  Hell, I don't even trust the Starbucks barista to make my latte correctly if I can see visible pantyline! 
  • You can be feminine without looking like a sexpot at the office.  I adore pencil skirts... although it appears that someone at the University of Chicago equates She Who Wears Pencil Skirts to She Who Dances Topless On Bars.  I think this is Shrew Talk.  Tasteful, well-fitting clothes that show a woman's natural curves will not result in office orgies (and suggesting that male colleagues will be tempted by the sight of a woman's bare arm or calf is poppycock).  
  • Use your noodle and be prepared! Are you conducting a huge document review on site today? If so, you might find yourself lugging boxes down off of shelves and bending over to inspect items.  Perhaps today isn't the day to wear the pencil skirt and the platform heels... No one wants to be "The Girl Who Flashed Her Partner" for the rest of her career.  Or, is there a chance you might get called into a client meeting or asked to run something down to the courthouse?  Be sure you have an extra suit jacket in your office that can be thrown on over your outfit if you're caught by surprise and not dressed in a suit. 
Credo #4: You Chose This Profession, Remember?
  •  Hey!  Ms. Bitches-A-Lot! You are the one who chose to enter into a profession that is traditionally conservative (and traditionally male-dominated).  If you want to wear this seasons' latest jeggings and boudoir shorts to work, you should have gone into PR or opened your own wine & paper shop (sigh). As one of my very favorite film lines so eloquently lays it out... "You can't ride two horses with one ass, Butterbean."  It's called Work, not Fashion Show Fun, and while I'm a huge advocate for finding ways to present your personal style appropriately at the office, at the end of the day, your job is to get results for your clients and your employers... not to be Alley McBeal. 
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?  


  1. Can I print this out for someone in my non-profit law office? Woudl that be harsh to leave onher seat?...

  2. Agreed re: all of the above. Especially, the wine and paper shop (sigh) aspect. I have to dress slightly more conservative than you being in a smaller town, so no peep toes for me. However, panty hose only for court and winter (whoohoo leg freedom!). Totally agree with pumps for court, or big client days (which is analogous in my transactional world).

  3. Love the post and I am not even a lawyer, but just points out theres a time and a place for certain fashions... side note... one of my proudest days as a 10 year old was my mom giving me a pair of nude panyhose... I felt so grown up... Now you couldn't pay me to wear a pair.

  4. "Remove Head From Ass"! Do you by any chance watch Spartacus??

    Thank you for the post. I work with college juniors and seniors and this year I had many of them ask me what to where for an interview . . .and those that didn't ask, well let's just say they should have asked!

  5. I really loved this post and I'm not even a lawyer! Well said!

  6. I'm a lawyer and completely agree with your thoughts. Unfortunately, the firm I'm currently at had this very issue...some grown adult women do need to be told it is not appropriate to have extreme cleavage and wear hooker boots to the office.

    I love the stand up routine from Dave Chappelle about women who dress slutty and are offended when they are solicited by men being similar to someone going up to a person dressed as a police officer and being told it's just an outfit and does not mean the person is in fact a police officer...if you are wearing the uniform, then don't be suprised if your mistaken for that profession

  7. Love this post. Am a doctor, not a lawyer, but many of the same rules apply and I can't believe how a lot of my colleagues dress!

  8. Oops, I meant "you're" not "your"

  9. I loved this post and I agree with you. Although, isnt't it a bit sad that people even have to be told this information? Doesn't common sense, tact, etc. take over at some point?

  10. Dear lord I love your posts.
    That is all.

  11. Loved this post, of course. And sorry for dragging you into the mess! Loves you!

  12. Love your post. I am an attorney too and you are so right. I've worked in a district attorney office, a small litgation firm and now work in house for a large bank. All have slight variations on the same theme. Think you hit it right on the head.

  13. This post makes me glad I work in a creative field! Panty hose = no, leggings = yes!

    Ditto on the fact that most people should know this! But you always look fab and some people are not that smart :)

  14. So, I'm an aspiring med student and spent this winter interviewing. I looked EVERYWHERE for wool suiting - and just didn't find much. Everyone talks about buying wool, and I am totally on board with this. But when the rubber hit the road, I couldn't find any that didn't look matronly on me or worked for having curves (I am a very hour-glass kind of girl).

    J.Crew has wool suiting, but my local store carried none of it (only some weird cotton suit - who buys a cotton suit?!). Ann Taylor had it, but it was HORRIBLE. The sales associate even agreed. Banana Republic pants do not fit my junk in my trunk. And even Nordstrom didn't have any wool suits!

    So what's a girl to do? I bought a very attractive synthetic fiber suit that I love, but I still wish it was wool. Thoughts on other places to look? Just suck it up and order several sizes/styles from J.Crew to find the best (I didn't have enough time to go that route this year, needed a suit just 3 weeks after I found out and I always need alterations, so I had to go with something that didn't need to be shipped. Thoughts welcome...

  15. Loved reading this!! My office is pretty laid back, but I def. agree--always keep a suit jacket on hand for those surprise court appearances or meetings with clients.

    Thankfully, I have never seen a single female under the age of 80 wear pantyhose in my state. Ew.

  16. Why do so many women complain about Pantyhose. They are so sexy!! they complete any women's outfit. I don't care what you do for work.

  17. A. I find that working in an office that DOES NOT follow these guidelines makes the whole shebang feel a lot less like real work.
    B. In my trial ad class last week, a girl wore a dress (it was made of suiting and was a nice gray twill...) but it only came to about 4 inches above her knee. I almost cried when she sat down.


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