When I taught a course on legal information last summer appropriate dress in a legal environment was a topic of some interest to those starting their careers. And as I find recent conversations about feminism and clothes to be quite interesting, I thought I would write out my thoughts in more detail.
There is reasonable concern about the different ways women and men are discussed and judged in relation to what they wear, and there are certainly biases observed in the ways they are treated. While I have observed that men do get a certain amount of the benefit of the doubt in this area, both men and women are judged by the way they dress.
One important difference is that we are more socially conditioned to talk about how women dress, but a man who dresses well and looks good in a suit does have an appreciable advantage in a professional career over those who don’t, whether people remark on it or not.
As evidence of men’s clothing choices being noticed, I will say that I have been to legal Christmas parties where broad jokes were made about the tightness of the pants worn by certain younger men in the office, while the younger women were not treated in this way. It makes me wonder if perhaps in this context it is less a problem that women’s clothing is remarked upon, than that traditional ways of enforcing the norms of dress in certain contexts through humour are not as easily transferred to women.
It is culturally more difficult to openly mock women’s clothing. The jokes may have been cringe inducing at the moment for the men involved, but if it helped them learn to dress in ways that advance their authority early in their careers, it may have been a kind of advantage to them.
The only women whose clothing I have ever heard joked about in legal circles are women who are very well established. From this I would argue that perhaps part of the problem for women is that the momentary embarrassment of mockery comes too late to make a great difference in their career outcomes.
Clothing is communication, and just as people are judged by their writing style, they are judged by their clothing. Highly paid professionals who don’t appear authoritative must work harder to be taken seriously, and dress is the easiest way to improve how authoritative one looks.
I have heard different views of how women should express femininity in business attire, with many women resisting pressure to wear only sombre colours. This short article from the Guardian is an excellent example of this. Notice the picture of Angela Merkel in black pants and a yellow jacket used to illustrate it. The article remarks on the uniform implied by Merkel’s black pants, but a quick image search shows that Merkel is drawn to wearing brightly coloured jackets. I was struck by Merkel’s yellow jacket in contrast with David Cameron’s dark suit.
Colour conveys meaning. Less saturated colours may be perceived as less powerful, and I have had it recommended to me to never wear pink to a job interview because it is a tentative colour. Consider Marie Antoinette in her muslin dress:
Pale, filmy dresses like this were perceived as subverting the authority of the state and her role as queen of France. There was even a book written about the impact of Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices in French history.
Contrast this with Elizabeth I’s projection of authority in her saturated colours:
Another issue is that some women don’t feel that feminine clothing expresses their identity. I don’t believe women need wear overtly feminine clothing to be taken seriously, but this may require a higher level of execution to get the same level of acceptance.
Extrapolating from my experience, part of sartorial empowerment is developing a willingness to walk out of a store that tries to sell something silly. The men in my family will simply turn around and walk away if anything is not to their liking.
In contrast, I remember asking what was wrong with the pants on the occasion of buying by first suit for job interviews and being told “all the pant suits come with capri pants this year.” When I asked about why the skirts were all so short I was told “all the skirt suits come with mini skirts this year.” It is a source of disappointment to me today that I didn’t walk out immediately.
It is frustrating to see the disparity between the ways women and men are treated, for example the Australian news presenter who wore the same suit for a year and no one noticed. I might refer back to my earlier point that people feel it is more appropriate to comment on women’s clothing, and there is a possibility that people did notice, but didn’t write in about it. Regardless the treatment is unfair.
Considering all the other things one does for ones career this isn’t more effort than many other things. Being a well dressed person is cultivated and learned, and is not many people’s initial view of their identity. I have observed successful people in the legal industry who were not generally well dressed, but they appear to have to be better at what they do to get the same respect.