Subject to Interpretation: Leopard-Print Heels Welcome, Not Required

Juliana SiconolfiDo Supreme Court Justices worry about their wardrobe choices? The answer may surprise you. we’re pleased to welcome back guest poster Juliana Siconolfi to share her thoughts about high-powered women and fashion. Welcome, Juliana! 

Pop quiz: Who said the following?  “I wish I had my own sense of style.”

Was it a:

  • a) Supermodel
  • b) TV personality
  • c) Supreme Court Justice

The answer is c.  (Did you pass?)

When I began reading My Beloved World by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I anticipated receiving a bird’s-eye view into her life and soaking up words of wisdom. I was right on both accounts. What I did not anticipate were the small but consistently present mentions of style. In fact, it seemed that with almost every major stage of her life she covered, she offered readers an account of a personal style moment or made an observation about the self-presentation of others — or herself.

As someone who cares so deeply about the issue of how appearance standards affect women — and particularly women lawyers — I was heartened by these references. Since I began to research and write about appearance standards a number of years ago, I have encountered doubt from some people about whether the issue is really that important. I have remained steadfast in my belief that it is. It isimportant because women are judged by their appearance and the ramifications of those judgments may impact their economic viability, employment status, professional reputation and success, well-being and more. It is important because girls and women are criticized for their hairstyle or their choice of dress, and there aren’t enough conversations happening about why certain expectations exist and whether they should continue to exist.

To be clear, I believe that some dress codes and appearance standards are appropriate. I dare say that most of us would feel pretty uncomfortable if our attorney showed up to a legal proceeding in a sweatshirt (even though sweatshirts are on trend right now…but I digress). What I’ve been discussing throughout this series is not about self-presenting to meet basic modicums of appropriateness (although some would argue those should be evaluated more closely, too). Rather, my concerns revolve around one’s ability to develop her identity in part through her self-presentation choices, and whether she will be unduly scrutinized for such choices by her colleagues, supervisors, clients, and so on. If you don’t have control over how you present yourself, it begs the question:

What do you have control over?

Just as we must contemplate and discuss the negative implications of being judged by our appearance, we should acknowledge the positives that can arise from our style choices. I was thrilled to see style editor Bobbie Thomas’ recent book, The Power of Style: Everything You Need to Know Before You Get Dressed Tomorrow, offer specific suggestions about how to empower oneself through style choices. Her book also explains and champions the importance of embracing one’s own definition and interpretation of style.

Speaking of which, let’s take a look at how some famous women attorneys do just that:

First Lady Michelle Obama

While the First Lady is not currently practicing law, she holds a powerful, professional, and highly visible global role. To me, the way in which she demonstrates power through style is how impeccably and consistently her outfits exhibit her value system. For example:

For example:

  • Rather than avoiding the press when donning workout outfits (as some of us might, were we famous), she seems to welcome such opportunities and exudes an innate sense of pride in the value she places on a healthy lifestyle;
  • As this Fashionista article aptly notes, her selection of a gorgeous Tracy Reese dress at the “Let Freedom Ring” event last year seemed to be a way of honoring the messages and accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, as Ms. Reese is a woman of color; and
  • Choosing Jason Wu designs for both of her inauguration gowns seemed to demonstrate a powerful message of independence, of supporting those whom she believes in – even if they are not an obvious or best choice to other people – and of choosing clothes that make her feel empowered.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has long been well-aware of the scrutiny she has faced because of her appearance. In Robb Young’s captivating book, Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post),he contends that the criticism Hillary Clinton has faced about her appearance is at least in part due to the fact that she has repeatedly changed her style. While I am not sure whether I entirely agree with this argument, I do agree with a point made by Young and others that the former Secretary of State seems to have developed a style through pantsuits, and that they are not leaving her closet anytime soon. At last year’s CFDA Awards, she even joked that she was going to suggest a new show to Bravo TV executive Andy Cohen, “Project Pantsuit” (a play on “Project Runway”, which used to air on Bravo before moving to Lifetime).

Hillary Clinton may not be widely considered a style icon, but I’d argue that she should be, at the very least in light of the self-possession she exhibits over her self-presentation. Further, she seems to have a genuine admiration for and interest in fashion and style. She values the work of iconic designers like Oscar de la Renta, whose clothing she has worn numerous times including at her daughter’s wedding. Not too long ago she debuted a great hair cut (in my humble opinion). And her glasses? They evoke classic, intellectual chic. (Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I wear similar-looking frames.)

How exactly does the former Secretary of State demonstrate power through her style? It has been argued that she does so because she self-presents as she pleases without being fazed by any resulting criticism, and is able to reach incredibly successful professional heights. As a November 2012 article in Marie Claire magazine noted, “Nowadays she dresses, it seems, for herself […]”. I agree with both of these assessments, and think she is making some of the most powerful style statements possible.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

As I mentioned earlier, Justice Sotomayor references her on-going relationship with style and fashion throughout her memoir. Whether comparing her childhood appearance in a self-deprecating manner to her “princess doll in a glass case”- like cousin, complimenting her mother’s “effortless style”, or not believing a colleague who complimented her appearance, it is clear that she can identify what she deems good style and has a desire to embody it. She is aware of the joys of fashion, whether noting her attempt to “match [her mother’s] glamour” as a young child wearing a new Easter hat, falling in love with a white raincoat as a teenager going off to college, or commenting on how good she felt in a $50 (costly to her at the time) suit when accepting Princeton’s most prestigious graduation award.

From learning how to shop for clothes that suited her (no pun intended) with the help of a friend (Elaine, whom she references in the quote I’ve included below), to wearing 80s-like power suits during her nomination hearings, to a more recent donning of leopard-print heels during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Justice Sotomayor’s self-presentation journey exemplifies style triumphs and challenges. Yet, since she did not identify as a woman with a sense of style for so long (and, it seems, may not fully be aware of the level of style she exhibits now), how does she demonstrate power through style? Justice Sotomayor answers the question herself toward the end of her book:

“Dressing badly has been a refuge much of my life, a way of compelling others to engage with my mind, not my physical presence […] Elaine gave me the precious gift of showing me that it didn’t need to be that way. I am a woman; I do have a feminine side. Learning to enjoy it would not diminish any other part of me.”

And then, I came upon this insight: Perhaps Justice Sotomayor’s most powerful style statement is demonstrated through her judicial robe. For as Robin Givhan said, “The basic black robe is fashion perfection. It sends a singularly powerful message: I am here to uphold the law, without prejudice.”

Some Final Thoughts

These three women – who have held various positions of power in the U.S. – speak through their unique style choices. While they may have different approaches to and philosophies about style, one thing is clear: They self-present in a way that demonstrates who they are and what they believe in. They embrace the best of what style should be and have avoided succumbing to the worst of what it is at times misused for.  

Some time ago I came across this quote from the designer Michael Kors — may it serve as a source of empowerment for each of you:

“I was never into the idea of the Cinderella transformation—I was always into the idea that you can be yourself.”

— – —

Thanks, Juliana!

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.

Read On:

If you’d like more professionalism tips, read Juliana’s other pieces:

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