It matters what you wear (lawyers edition)

I was interested to read Amanda Hess’ recent Slate article on the perils of wardrobe choice for lawyers.  There’s a very strict, if not obvious or consistent, code of propriety for men and women – she outlines some of the challenges that apply to everyone, as well as the disproportionate impact on female lawyers, who had to pass the bar like everyone else but get reduced to sexpots if they wear the wrong heels.  The gender bias starts with the click bait title: Female lawyers who dress too “sexy” are apparently a “huge problem” in the courtroom.

None of this is a surprise to me.  One of the workshops I’m called upon to give at the undergraduate level at least a couple of times every year is my spiel on “Wardrobe – why you need to look the part.”  It’s the least fun workshop I give; pretty much just me, showing slides of good and bad wardrobe choices and getting the kids to articulate their assumptions and biases about a person based on their looks.  It’s ugly, it’s problematic on very many levels, and I keep doing it…because people really need it.

So here are some of my insights, based on four years of telling people how to dress for job interviews and internships.

People will judge you based on your appearance.  In approximately 1/10th of a second. Why is this an insight, when it’s the very basis of my workshops and this post?  Because many people, in my experience, don’t want to believe this.  Granted, I’m almost always dealing with well educated kidsthey’re about to graduate college and want to believe that they’re living in a post-prejudice world.  Even kids of color tend to believe that they’re about to enter a post-racial workforce, and young women applying to law school will gloss over articles like Ms. Hess’ assuming that their smarts and great LSAT scores are all that will matter.  But really, looks matter.  They’re not the only thing that matters, and focusing only on your outward appearance is a recipe for an empty soul.  But you ignore your physical appearance at your own peril.

First impressions last. Once someone has an impression of you, confirmation bias will kick in – they will look for additional information that backs up that snap judgement, and anything that confirms their opinion will be easily integrated into their perception of you, and anything that might require them to change their mind will be rejected or subjected to a lot of scrutiny.  It takes a lot to get someone to change their mind about you.  So a) looks matter; why don’t you believe me yet?! and b) if you know you’re making a first impression that’s not perfect (this is life – everything is a tradeoff and perfection is a myth), you should be conscious of that and immediately start to counteract that particular deficit because it’s going to be hard work to do so.  (Women in a super sharp dark suit, work on showing how “likable” you are; women in a pantsuit, go ahead and do your nails, soften your hairstyle, show how “feminine” you are, etc.)

Men need to focus on: tidiness, fit, “babyface syndrome”, fitting in.  Iron your shirt, iron your pants.  Really.  Get your jacket and pants tailored.  People overwhelmingly respond positively to bespoke clothing in men (power! competence! intelligence! likability!  all these can be yours…for the price of a hem and tuck.).  Men with childish faces need to counteract that to gain authority – a little facial hair if appropriate, or even easier, skewing a bit more formal with other choices.  And always, make sure you’re blending in to your particular industry…Wall Street has a set of shirt and tie and shoe choices that are different from what art directors wear and is different from Capitol Hill staffers.  They’re subtle, but you need to know what your industry’s unspoken fashion rules are.  Shop carefully, and if need be, conservative/neutral.  And iron your damn shirt.  Not just the front where it peeks through your blazer.  (I’m harping on that, yes.  Because overwhelmingly, I get emails from young men who didn’t listen the first time and want me to know that I was right.  I don’t actually enjoy schadenfreude, so I’m begging you: iron.)

Women need to overthink everything.  Where men are more or less given the benefit of the doubt on most nuanced questions of visual impression, people are quicker to impose their own values on women.  As a result, the best advice I can give is to be yourself, at a certain point.  You need to follow most of the same rules as men. When in doubt, err on the side of conservative.  Focus on fit, focus on fitting in, be careful when trying to stand out (that’s a double edged sword – some good, some bad).

Because people judge women so harshly and with greater inconsistency, at the end of the day, as long as you’ve done the work to think exceedingly carefully about what you’re conveying with your appearance, you have to go with a calculated authenticity – one where you’ve made choices you can stand behind.  For instance – skirt vs. pants…you can be damned either way – so wear what makes you feel confident unless you have information to suggest one might be vastly preferable for the individual(s) you’re meeting.  I used to work with some religious folks with particular views on women’s dress.  Pants signaled to them that a) I existed outside their mental model of women and b) made me feel more modest than my skirts would have – like many women, my professional wardrobe did not include shapeless ankle-length skirts, and even with tights (much less my usual sheer pantyhose), I would have been uncomfortable revealing my legs from the knee down to these men.  I think I lost some ground for my “mannish” ways here and there, but it was a choice I felt good about, and we worked reasonably effectively together.

After reading Ms. Hess’ article, you’ve got a great set of specific real world hazards.  But there are some complicating factors, of course.  Studies show:

  • people give low status folks greater leeway when it comes to dressing “too sexy”,
  • unless they’re currently lower status but on an obvious career trajectory (like interns)
  • the difference between “too sexy” and “powerful” is about 1-2 inches on a skirt hem and 1 button on a blouse, not skintight miniskirt and cleavage vs. your puritan grandmother’s church attire
  • skipping the minefield of skirtsuits/dresses for pantsuits lands you on an equally treacherous tightrope where you might be “mannish”, and need to worry about transgressing gender expectations
  • you’d better get the color right for the industry  – color can make you more likable but dark colors and black make you look more competent and discreet…except that it seems those effects are varied by “culture,” which in this case is defined as workplace culture rather than your actual culture (this is more important for some people than others…for instance, the couture of power in Ghana is very different than Silicon Valley, yes?  It’s true for less dramatic culture clash too)
  • People of color have it worse – natural hair, darker skin tones, etc. tend to provoke bias.  There’s no way to sugarcoat that, and there’s no right answer for what to do with that knowledge.  Go read Americanah, which is good advice for folks who just want to enjoy a novel where the constant questions of hair (among other things) is normalized, and for the privileged classes who have never thought about what relaxant actually does to your hair and skin.  After that, once again, you must follow my advice to be true enough to yourself that you do not regret the results (hate them, rail against injustice, sure…but not be consumed with self-critique after the fact).
  • And then there’s just the problem of local expectations (dressing for success looks different in Atlanta vs. NYC, even at branches of the same multinational company).
  • Don’t skip makeup.  Don’t overdo it.

Dressing the part is a huge class issue.   This is something that I feel is a huge omission from the conversation, and it’s why I keep doing these workshops.  For every privileged fratboy who is not going to listen to my advice (Dude…these Brooks Brothers shirts SAY “no iron,” so I don’t have to.), there are a handful of ambitious young people who already understand everything I’m saying conceptually.  They get that they have to “pass”, that looking the part will get them through doors where they can then prove themselves on merit and talent and hard work.  But what they don’t have is experience or access to good visual models.

Let’s take a closer look at the problem of sexy lawyers.  If you are someone whose parents are blue collar workers, if their social circles do not include high status lawyers…where do you turn when you’re trying to figure out what to wear to your first paralegal or law school interview?  TV and film is horrible in this regard, with a few notable exceptions.  The Good Wife is a shining star in a field of untamed “sexy” lawyers.  I came of age in a time when Ally McBeal and Sex in the City were ruining our vision of work appropriate attire for professional women.  These days you can tune into Suits (a show I love – Gina Torres can convincingly crush you like a bug with a sidelong glance…but her hems are high, her dresses gloriously form-fitting, her blazers few and far between.) or Scandal to see some hot lawyers, or watch Lucy Liu telegraph her sidekick status with quirky fashion on Elementary (cheating – she’s a doctor, I know – I’m including her since I’m particularly offended by the wardrobing choices on that show)…and these are the better contemporary shows for empowered women!

It’s hard to find a legitimate depiction of work appropriate clothes from the outside of any industry, but the legal profession is particularly pernicious, because as a generally high paid profession, they tend to be particularly attuned to status clues (even when they aren’t conscious of them), prejudicing interviewers against the kind of suits and fabrics and shoes that most college/grad school students on financial aid can afford.  And then there are the accessories, from jewelry to watches to briefcases, etc.  It’s trickier than you might think to make the right first impression, and most of your interviewers will not believe they can be so easily prejudiced by the immaterial.

So, my advice.

  • Stop looking to TV for your career fashion advice.  It’s a bad idea.
  • See if you can shadow people in your preferred industry to get a better sense of what people really wear.
  • If you can’t find enough people to shadow, don’t just wing it.  Ask for help if you don’t have enough personal experience to draw from.  Some people are born with the right networks of exposure, the rest of us have to work at it…but it’s possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to be overdressed, particularly as a woman.  You’re not looking to fit in with other interns or first years or low level employees…you’re looking to convey competence and authority.
  • The above advice needs to be moderated by common sense.  Every general piece of advice that can be given needs to be translated through local culture – where you are, what industry you’re in, norms of your actual workplace, etc.  Don’t be the only person showing up to a hackathon in a 3 piece suit, etc.
  • Without being obsessive about it, you can check in periodically with trusted mentors and peers who can tell you what they perceive from your wardrobe.
  • When you get to the level where you are hiring or evaluating folks, be mindful of your own implicit biases.  Don’t let them cloud your judgment, don’t let them go unchallenged.  And where appropriate, give feedback to underlings whose dress isn’t serving them well.  (Emphasis on being careful there – don’t open yourself up to legal or social repercussions because you are the only one naming a truth.)
  • When you reach a reasonable level of comfort within a profession, develop your own style in a way that opens doors for others who don’t fit into a narrow window of fashion choices.  Thanks, Elena Kagan. (And a brief, amusing but sincere shout out as well to my own congresswoman and hero, Rosa DeLauro.  Note – the link goes to a site that is mostly safe for work, except for the URL and title, which will give you a sense of the language allowed.  You are warned.)






Brian Tippy

Great article, Shana, especially in the way you walk the tightrope between acknowledging the bias people place on appearance without endorsing it.

I have to quibble on one point, though: Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts really should not be ironed. If they are laundered properly, they do look nicely ironed once hung. However, and it’s a big however, if they are allowed to sit at the end of the dryer cycle, they do wrinkle. But even then, they shouldn’t be ironed. A quick spritz of water from a spray bottle and some time on the hanger should set them right again.

Brooks’ regular shirts are not a good contemporary cut on a trim guy (too billowy—speaking to your point about bespoke clothing), but they do have a “slim” fit these days that’s not terrible slim but simply tailored to a more modern cut.

Shana Ross

Fine points, duly noted!

And a good reminder that everyone should be looking for clothes that fit, one way or another…I in no way endorse Brooks Brothers over whatever works for your body and budget!


I was going to suggest googling powerful women in the organization where you’re interviewing as a cue to culture, though that, too, can backfire. I recently went to a law firm event hosted by one of the most badass lawyers I know – EVERYONE in cable TV knows her, and either uses her or fears her. And she was wearing a flippy floral skirt and a frilly jacket, which I’d never do in a situation like that.

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