Subject to Interpretation: Do You Believe in (Fashion) Magic?

Juliana SiconolfiCan fashion work magic? In honor of Fashion Week(s) all over the globe lately, I’m pleased to welcome back guest poster Juliana Siconolfi with her take on the topic. Welcome, Juliana!

A few months ago I read a post entitled, “What I Want My Daughter to Know About Fashion.” I took some positive takeaways from the piece, including the sentiment that one’s value stems from who she is as a person as opposed to the contents of her closet. I also finished the piece wondering about one point in particular:

Fashion doesn’t give you confidence. Fashion isn’t magic.

And by “wonder,” I mean that my jaw may have dropped.

All kidding aside, I do appreciate the author’s point that we cannot expect our clothing to attain self-confidence for us — we must do that work. Further, our clothing choices should be based on that self-confidence, and not as a way to compensate for that which we perceive as lacking in ourselves.

After I read the article, I came across a Levo League tweet containing an apropos quote by J.K. Rowling:

We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.

“Magic” may be too strong a word to describe fashion. However, I firmly believe that it does possess power.

The Power of Fashion

The power of fashion (and appearances more generally) presents itself in many forms, from serving as a form of speech to serving as inspiration. (As to the former point, cases like Tinker v. Des Moines may be brought to mind.)

Earlier this year, for example, as I began a long day of travel I decided to motivate myself to do some work by perusing photos of Proenza Schouler’s New York Fashion Week show. The pieces were simultaneously cool and beautiful — no small feat.  They also looked to have been brilliantly made with immense passion, care and creativity (ultrasonic welding, anyone?!).

After looking at the collection I felt so motivated that I went on to meet and surpass my work goals for the day. Now there is some fashion power, I thought.

Comeback of the Power Suit?

Sometimes clothing is even referred to in terms of power. Of particular fame is the “power suit.”

As it happens, according to a New York Times article, Gucci may be reviving the power suit spirit in its women’s fall/winter 2013-14 collection (through modern and sophisticated pieces, as opposed to a revival of shoulder pads from here to, well, somewhere far away).

Talking About Fashion Power

Exploration of the connection between fashion and power is long-standing. Among others, fashion writer Robin Givhan has written about the topic and in 2008, she gave an engaging and thought-provoking talk on the subject (which I was fortunate to attend).

A quick glance at my desk today and one can see examples (piles of them!) of articles and books that implicitly or explicitly acknowledge the existence of the relationship between fashion and power, with many of the writings focused on how it pertains to women.

  • Robb Young’s fascinating book, Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion, educates its readers on a multitude of ways in which a woman’s visual self-presentation choices may correlate to an increase in her professional power . . . as well as how perceptions of her choices may diminish it.
  • Deborah L. Rhode’s The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law sets out many ways in which appearance factors into how women are treated — or mistreated — in the work force and beyond.

One of my favorite stories about the positive power of appearance involves a woman who worked the majority of her life as a stay-at-home mom. Though a different career path was taken, the takeaways from this woman’s actions apply to those of us who are in the legal profession. The story goes something like this:

  • Back in the late 1940s (if my math is correct — insert lawyer joke here), this woman was an undergraduate student. Her college had banned lipstick and blush from its campus. One day her father picked her up from school to bring her home. As she entered the car, her father asked her if she was wearing makeup. She did not evade the question; rather, she responded in the affirmative. As far as is known, she did not take off her makeup that day — or any day after that.

The woman who took this bold action — made through a medium (i.e., makeup) deemed silly by some, no less — was like a grandmother to me.

Unfortunately, she passed away earlier this year. But while her loss saddens me, stories such as the one I just relayed fill me with admiration. I’m also impressed by the impact that one person’s personal self-presentation decision could have on others so many years later.

What’s the Point?!?

I have mentioned in this post and in previous ones some of the tensions that can be caused by appearance standards. And we all have our own opinions about the topic. 

While some of us may have a love affair with fashion, others may find it dull. Still others may dismiss the idea that fashion can incite positivity or positive change in an individual, a community, a profession, a society.

Further, I’ve spoken a lot about the incongruity that may be experienced between how we intend to self-present and how others may perceive us. I imagine that some of us might just throw our hands up and think, What’s the point?

The point is not that we give up. On the contrary, we must recognize the potential incongruity, question it, and discuss it in order to effect positive change. While everyone has an important voice in the conversation, it seems to me that those of us who are in the legal profession have a particular responsibility to participate in it. 

We are, after all, advocates and upholders of justice.

But there’s more: I also wish to encourage a more universal recognition of the positive power that can exist in our self-presentation decisions — power that may be felt on an individual level and on a broader level.

In a later guest post here, I’ll explore some of the ways to embrace this power through examples of famous women attorneys, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

For now, I leave you with this: Our fashion and grooming choices can provide us with confidence, power, and maybe — on a really good day, when the stars align — a little bit of magic. 

— – —

Thanks, Juliana! Can’t wait to see what you have to say re: Justice Sotomayor. Her book was fascinating on this 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.

Read On:

If you’d like more fashion-related analysis, take a look at Juliana’s other pieces:

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