Subject to Interpretation: What to Wear?

Juliana SiconolfiToday, we’re excited to welcome Juliana Siconolfi, Professorial Lecturer in Law and LL.M. candidate at The George Washington University Law School for her first Subject to Interpretation post. She’ll be writing about a very important, interesting, and under-discussed topic: appearance standards and professionalism.

Hi, Everyone, and thank you for taking the time to stop by my guest post. Thanks also to Alison for giving me the opportunity to speak with you all. Over the course of the next few posts, I look forward to sharing some of my thoughts and experiences concerning an aspect of professionalism that is often times not taken very seriously — the appearance standards that female attorneys confront. 

I want to discuss what the standards are, how these standards may help/hinder our career goals, and whether we might want to change some/all of them . . . and if so, how?

Why Fashion?

My interest in this topic stemmed many years ago, before I even knew that appearance standards existed. Back in the days of watching “Punky Brewster” and creating elaborate storylines for my Barbies, I dreamed about a career in fashion. I sketched clothing for an imaginary design house. I swooned over my aunt’s vintage Gucci bowling bag. It was on a Christmas Day that I realized it was possible to not just “fall into the Gap”, but also fall in love with a piece of the store’s clothing when my sister gave me a soft, cream-colored sweater with a scalloped neckline.

Throughout the years my love of fashion became a hobby, never materializing (pun intended) into a career. Instead I pursued a law degree.

Though I chose a non-traditional career path, my professional pursuits have often intersected with the legal field.

It was during a law school teaching fellowship that I developed a passion for the field of professionalism, especially dress and grooming standards.

My perspective on this topic has been shaped through many experiences, including my personal dress and grooming struggles and victories and those of family, friends, students, and colleagues. 

I understand the importance of dress and grooming in the professional world because I feel and see it first-hand.

I know that when my hair is frizz-free (nothing against frizz, it’s just not very flattering on me), I’m wearing a well-fitting and stylish outfit, and my pinky toes aren’t pinched in my shoes I am more confident than I otherwise would be. It also seems to me that I am received better by others, taken more seriously and treated in a friendlier manner.

At least, that’s how it feels sometimes.

Do You See What I See?

And that’s where one of the complexities of this issue comes into play. I have seen the flip side of this story — when I have felt really confident in my appearance and have been received in a less than positive manner. A quick(ish) example:

One day a number of years ago, I met with one of my law professors about my post-graduation job search. She was one of my favorite professors — I respected her very much and valued her opinion (I still do!). She was so kind to mentor me, and she validated my hope that I could pursue a successful alternative career path.

But during that meeting something unexpected happened. 

As she gave me a pep talk about how I should pursue the career I wanted, she made a comment about my self-presentation. She noted (I’m paraphrasing) that I wasn’t meant to wear suits — that they weren’t me. As I sat in her office in my favorite suit, feeling like . . . well, myself. My professor meant this statement to be a compliment — it seemed that she felt my outfit was too conformist for a person whom she considered to be a non-conformist (at least, with regards to my career goals). 

Although I understood her intent I couldn’t help but feel awkward, self-conscious, and a bit offended.

That story is just a small, relatively innocuous example of the disconnect that can occur between what someone wishes to say — or not say — with her dress and grooming choices and the possible (mis)perceptions of those messages.

Miscommunication is rarely good, especially when it can lead to an un-level playing field. 

In the example I provided above, I licked my wounds and learned some important lessons about how my professional identity could be misunderstood by others. Unfortunately, there can be more serious ramifications and consequences.

More Than Meets the Eye

That is why I write about this topic — because the stakes can be so high for us when our shoes aren’t high enough or are too high, or are too shiny or not shiny enough, or are the wrong shade of the wrong color on the wrong day in the wrong century . . . you get my point. 

For better or worse, there is more than meets the eye to one’s self-presentation decisions. It is my goal to help illuminate some of these issues and explore them, with the hope that you all will carry on the conversation in your offices, your committees, your mentoring relationships.

It has been said by others before me that clothing speaks. Let’s make sure we control its meaning.

— – —

Thanks, Juliana! Can’t wait to hear more on this interesting topic.

Juliana Siconolfi is a Professorial Lecturer in Law with The George Washington University Law School. She is also an LL.M. Candidate there, and is writing her thesis on how and why law school externship program curricula should address the workplace appearance standards that female attorneys confront. Juliana is a 2013 Ms. JD Writer-in-Residence, exploring issues of professionalism in her monthly online column, “Attitudes, Actions, and Accessories: Notes from the Desk of the Professionalism-Obsessed.” She can be found on Twitter at @JulesSiconolfi.

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  1. So glad you are writing on this! Young women attorneys and law students get such strange messages where professionalism and attire are concerned. Looking forward to the series.

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