Cleavage and Stiletto Heels: Should Female Lawyers Tone It Down?

January 12, 2015


Legal Interest


Jacqui Jubb

Apparently, female lawyers have no idea how to dress appropriately.

All those years spent at law school honing our analytical skills, being schooled in ethics, listening to speeches from human rights lawyers to High Court judges, Prime Ministers and Attorney-Generals, and burying our heads in dusty Commonwealth Law Reports did not equip female legal professionals with one really important skill: how not to distract male (or female) colleagues in the office and judges in the courtroom.

Well, that’s the message from a US-based Loyola Law School Memo from its Executive Director to law students: “I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I? Yet I'm getting complaints from supervisors,” says the Memo entitled “Ethics, Professionalism and Course Requirements for Off Campus Externs”.

And yet as much as women have achieved in recent decades, with workplace equality and the gender pay gap now firmly on the agenda, apparently we are unable to dress ourselves without a widely disseminated memo or slideshow presentation.

So why do female lawyers get schooled on our dress decisions and should we be given just a little more credit for our ability to make sartorial choices?

Straight to the pool room: A history of dress censorship

The Loyola Law School Memo is nothing new.

Women have been getting tips and handy advice from wise fashion ‘mentors’ for decades, some deserving of pool room status for the sheer absurdity of their foundation. The legal profession, in particular, has been particularly vocal about the style statements of its distinguished members.

Back in 1987, Ariel Couchman was the first female to be admitted to the legal profession wearing pants. Couchman shocked the nation with her black pant suit audacity, defying the accepted dress practices of the Victorian Supreme Court, whilst her then supervising partner, Sue MacGregor, was previously thrown out of court for daring to wear polka-dot stockings. Yes, dots, can you believe the nerve?

In a 2002 speech for the Women Lawyers Association of New South Wales’ 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner, the Honourable Justice Mary Gaudron recalled that trailblazer, Ada Evans, enrolled in the Faculty of Law in 1902 while the Dean was overseas. Upon his return, the Dean summoned Ada to his office and, according to Mary, “with a fine grasp of legal principle, informed her that she did not have the ‘physique’ for law and would find medicine more suitable.”

Thankfully, Ada’s physique was finally overlooked and, despite much resistance (requiring a campaign which led to history-making legislation), Ada was enrolled as a law student in 1918 and admitted to the bar in 1921. The conservative nature of the profession, however, lived on.

In 2006, Supreme Court Justice Peter Young penned an Australian Law Journal article in which he lamented the slipping of dress standards by female lawyers in his courtroom, with “unwelcome” displays of flesh, especially when the offenders are “well built”.

Why did he target “well built” women, you ask? Why were small-breasted women left in peace to enjoy scoop necked sassiness and V-necked vanity? Well, you will have to ask Justice Young about that.

The problem is this: who defines what is too sexy and what is downright unacceptable? When society’s moral compass is ever changing when it comes to community dress standards, who decides when we’ve got it right?

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Female lawyers told to contain their giggles and cleavage: <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#auslaw</a> <a href=""></a> via <a href="">@lawyersweekly</a></p>&mdash; Lawyers Weekly (@LawyersWeekly) <a href="">October 28, 2013</a></blockquote>

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What are the rules?

If we’re all so unaware of the appropriate choices, what are the rules? Well, it seems like no one really knows.

I think we can all agree that a man shouldn’t wear a Borat mankini to court and a woman is unlikely to win judicial favour in a Liz Hurley safety pin number with a thigh high split or her weekend trackpants and joggers (as comfy and awesome as that would be after spending a day on your feet).

But if you happen to be having a Mad Men-esque day with a slim fitting frock and slightly generous neckline, should you be shot down because your curves are too irresistible or celebrated for looking stylish and left to concentrate on your, um, legal work perhaps?

When it comes to rules and codes, closed toed shoes, demure-looking attire, and no exposed flesh seem to be the order of the day for most offices but when it comes to hairbands and hemlines, it’s anyone’s guess.

Breaking the rules: no pink, no red

Woman wearing a pink dress

Rules are meant to be broken but not if you want to make it to the Chicago Bar. In 2010, the Chicago Bar Association held a controversial ‘What Not to Wear Fashion Show’  with guest judges and fashion industry experts critiquing law students for their professional attire.

Calling the event “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students”, an attendee blogger ‘Attractive Nuisance’ noted that red shoes are a no no (too Saturday night) and that Chief Judge Carla Craig of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York has an aversion to the colour pink. The blogger known as Legally Blonde passed out at a flyer declaring: “This is not the time for self-expression, flamboyance, or eccentricity.”

OK, so I understand that you’re not going to try out your new performance piece by standing naked in the courtroom covered in body paint, but no self-expression? Since when are we robots? Why are journalist and entrepreneurs celebrated for colourful and quirky choices while lawyers are scorned for exhibiting an ounce of individual flare?

As a member of the profession who has always been a little reluctant to conform to its conservative mantras, I broke two of them pretty early on in my career to mixed reaction. I wore pink shoes and bright red patent high heels, despite a Crown Prosecutor telling me that I shouldn’t wear my lovely pale pink slingbacks in court for reasons which escaped me.

Were my pink or red heels really going to be the focus of the Judge’s attention, as they rested neatly on the floor beneath the bar table? Would he or she be checking out my pointy stems rather than presiding diligently over the case and dispensing justice according to law? I sincerely doubt it.

Having a little more faith in womens’ ability to look individual and professional at the same time (and men’s ability not to be distracted) is crucial to transforming the language of the fashion debate and moving away from outright colour and accessory bans.

More substance, less style

With a conspicuous absence on guidelines for male law students, the Loyola Law School Memo reminds us that women in the legal profession (and elsewhere), consistently face value judgments and assumptions about our dress sense, appearance and physical form, beginning much earlier than law school and continuing throughout our professional lives.

When esteemed journalist and media personality, Lisa Wilkinson, delivered her Andrew Olle lecture, she cited emails from women critical of her dress sense in front of the camera, being asked far more often what she was going to wear than what she was going to say. What she really wanted was focus on the substance of her work and less on the style of her hair or outfit.

And whilst I acknowledge that we shouldn’t ignore stereotypes, refrain from giving tips on how to deal with those stereotypes in the workplace or avoid advice on how to dress for success, I believe that we need to change the focus of the discussion.

Let’s focus instead on being competent, intelligent, cool, confident, kickass women and lawyers with a neat professional appearance, with our own fabulous sense of corporate style and personality, with a glow and confidence that comes from within. We can have fun with fashion and be serious, credible lawyers too – they are not mutually exclusive. In the words of Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth:

“For I conclude that the enemy is not lipstick, but guilt itself; that we deserve lipstick, if we want it, AND free speech; we deserve to be sexual AND serious -- or whatever we please; we are entitled to wear cowboy boots to our own revolution.”

Hmmm, cowboy boots. Darn it. I definitely should have tried those out for size - without stilettos or cleavage, of course. I’ll leave that to Ally McBeal.

Jacqui Jubb

Jacqui Jubb is a senior lawyer and writer for the Smith's Lawyers blog on legal interest and workers rights topics.