Subject to Interpretation: Can We Talk About Fashion?

Juliana SiconolfiDoes it really matter what you wear as a lawyer? Shouldn’t you be judged on how brilliant your briefs are, not on whether your nail polish is chipped or your shirt is wrinkled? Maybe, but we all know that’s not how it works in the real world. Guest poster Juliana Siconolfi returns with a simple suggestion: Can we at least talk about these things?

One of the first times that I contemplated how my appearance might affect my legal career was during 2L OCI (On-Campus Interviewing) season.

I have a vivid memory of walking into my law school’s career services office to await an interview. I was looking forward to it, despite feeling a bit anxious. As I made my way toward the waiting room (a.k.a. the hallway), I saw a few other female law students who were already waiting. Soon we became immersed in a conversation about our respective self-presentation decisions.

We asked — ourselves, as much as each other — questions like: Were we wearing sufficient or excessive eye makeup? Should we wear our glasses to look more serious? (Elle Woods, anyone?) Should we wear our hair curly or straight, up or down? How much perfume was too much? Was a skirt suit or a pant suit the better choice? Flats or heels?

Since that initial foray into the topic, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the role of appearance standards in the legal profession, particularly as they apply to women.

Can We Talk?

Through my research, conversations, interviews, and writing I have come to a realization: While personal reflection on the topic has immense value, it is of the utmost importance that we converse about the issue with one another.

That is not to say that I lack personal opinions about the issue. I have plenty of them. For now, though, I’d like to begin with an overview of some of the main points that different schools of thought might have on the topic.

But first, a few words to naysayers:

To anyone who deems this topic no more than an exercise in frivolity, I would say this: 

There is an abundance of evidence to demonstrate that while we may all have diverse opinions about why/how/to what extent appearances matter in the workplace — or even if they should — the fact is that they do matter.

They may not matter all the time, or always in measurable ways. And as we put on jewelry in the morning or open our closet to grab a blazer as part of our Casual Friday garb, we may or may not be thinking, “Am I self-presenting in a way that I want to, and how might I be received by others?” However, we do make daily choices about our respective appearances that convey messages and may result in a positive or negative response from others.

We have all been recipients and providers of such responses.

Were Our Male Classmates Obsessing About Tie Colors?

It is quite possible that in the anecdote relayed above, my interviewer and the interviewers of my peers did not give our respective clothing and grooming choices much thought, or if they did, they correctly interpreted our intended messages of professionalism.

Regardless, my peers and I spent precious pre-interview time concerned about our choices.

We — smart, savvy, and sensible individuals — engaged in a woulda-coulda-shoulda conversation about our respective appearances instead of reviewing our resumes or interview talking points.

Why? Because we thought that our self-presentation decisions could play a role in how well we conveyed our professional identities and capabilities.

This is not an issue that is exclusive to the legal profession. The Washington Post recently covered the changing appearance standards for female newscasters. Recent issues of magazines like Marie Claire, Real Simple, Glamour, and Elle have featured articles concerning a variety of workplace appearance standards as they apply to women.

From these and other discussions, at least one conclusion may be drawn: While both men and women may consider their self-presentation choices and face appearance standards in their respective professions, more (and more complicated) expectations are placed on women.

What’s Being Debated?

Now, on to a sampling of the debate…

Pro-Appearance Standards:

  • Professionalism spans in scope from one’s ability to articulate herself to her time management skills to, yes, the visual image she conveys.
  • There are more fashion and grooming choices for women than men, and therefore more time and energy is required of women in order to make those decisions.
  • Some choices are appropriate office attire, while some are not, and there are plenty of books, magazines, and other publications — not to mention people, television program segments, and personal shoppers/stylists/image consultants — to help you determine what choices to make. If nothing else, just look to your superiors for guidance on appropriate office attire.
  • Clothing choices (and by extension, it seems, grooming choices) articulate something about the person who makes them, even beyond a label of (un)professionalism. As explained and demonstrated by authors such as Linda Grant throughout The Thoughtful Dresser, clothing selections are a vehicle through which to shape one’s identity. Exhibit A (mine, not Ms. Grant’s): Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Therefore, some might say, as a professional it is important to own that ability — that responsibility — and self-present in a way that evokes who you are. One must also think about how others might interpret such choices in order to avoid a potential miscommunication.

On the Other Hand:

  • What might happen when someone thinks she is self-presenting in a pulled together, confidence-instilling, positive manner but a colleague, boss, client, or someone else doesn’t see it the same way?
  • What might happen to the woman who doesn’t have the skill sets, money, or time to present herself in the way she would like to, or that is expected of her by others?
  • What might happen to the woman who doesn’t spend much time thinking about her image because she would prefer to expend that time, money, or energy elsewhere? Or to the woman who doesn’t want to conform to expectations and standards, but who has much to offer as a professional?
  • What might happen to the woman who doesn’t know what the standards are because they seem contradictory, unclear and/or confusing?
  • What might happen if there is an expectation about a woman’s image that she cannot ever meet, or at least not in a given moment? For example, what if there is an expectation imposed on a woman that she be thin, but she is not?

You get the drift — there are a million ways (okay, maybe not a million, but a lot) in which to frame and consider the issue. What I would ask of you is to think about your opinions and discuss them with your respective communities — your colleagues, peers, mentees, mentors, committee members, students, professors.

You might ask yourselves questions like:

  • Do I have preconceived notions about how someone “should” look, or what certain clothes or makeup colors or hairstyles signify?
  • Have I experienced a real-life example of unmet expectations? How did I respond?
  • Do I think placing value on one’s professional image is appropriate? To what extent?
  • Are there expectations that should be changed?
  • Do we know what the appearance standards are as female law students and attorneys? Who sets the expectations? Are they written down in policies, or are they to be garnered from observation, “common sense,” or in some other way?

The bottom line is that our engagement in discourse about this topic and the outcomes from our discussions affect our own career paths, the career paths of future generations of women, our clients, our profession, our society, our legacy.

— – —

Thanks, Juliana! I had a similar OCI experience (where a classmate told me I was “so brave” for wearing a slightly obnoxious Thomas Pink shirt with my otherwise staid suit). Definitely a topic we need to talk about, and a complicated one.

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.

Want more on this topic? Join our weekly mailing list, and you’ll find out about all of Juliana’s new columns! You can sign up here.

If you’d like more professionalism tips, check out our Get a Job! section or read Juliana’s first piece: Subject to Interpretation: What to Wear?

Have a question for Juliana? Leave it in the comments!


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