Earlier this month, I had oral arguments for an appellate brief I wrote in my legal rhetoric and writing course. My male partner and I spent hours upon hours of preparation time on an assignment that accounted for a mere ten percent of our overall grade. To put that into perspective, just showing up to the once-a-week class equated a similar ten percent of our semester grade. Regardless, we kept putting in the hours.
The day of my argument, I missed a morning make-up class to carefully pull out and steam a black pantsuit. I purchased a pinstriped, collared blouse, set to match my partner. I buffed a pair of flat, black dress shoes. Once I had everything ready, I dressed cautiously, buttoning my blouse up to my chin, yanking on a pair of men’s dress socks, and tying my hair into a bun at the nape of my neck. I kept my make-up to a minimum and threw on my new, horn-rimmed glasses. I grabbed my briefcase from the front door and looked at my spouse. He grinned, and said, “You look like LBJ.” I grinned back and dashed out the door.
Getting ready for any court proceeding, be it mock or real, has been frustrating. I started participating in mock trial in high school. It was the late 2000s and, as an insecure high school student in northeast Arkansas, I looked like most of my peers – long hair, black skirt suit, white blouse, black pumps, and a simple necklace, if you were feeling adventurous. I never gave much thought to what I wore.
In college, I started to expand my choices. I fell in love with pantsuits – fitted waist, straight legs, a single fastened button on the jacket, and heels if I wanted to be the tallest in the room or flats if I felt sedate. The summer before freshman year, I cut all my hair off. I felt empowered because I was dressing for myself. My sophomore year, I started competing in collegiate mock trial in the Southern region.
“You need to be softer” and “Try to be more approachable” littered the critiques I received that year from practicing attorneys and judges. I tried different approaches – I smiled more, I only interacted with expert witnesses, I paired myself with taller, broader shouldered partners who would make me seem smaller. I wore more make-up, I put pearls in my ears and around my neck, and I raised the pitch of my voice. Time and time again, the same critiques rolled in. Finally, I began to grow my hair out. I bought a skirt suit, two-inch heels and pantyhose, and rose-pink lipstick. That spring, I won my first award, with one judge telling me, “You just seemed genuine and in your element,” after I cross-examined a witness. On my way to the car, I threw the pantyhose in the trash. They had a run in the nylon and were now useless.
Being in a court setting is a tenuous experience as a woman. I am constantly watching my outfit, voice, body language, and space in a way I know my male counterparts are not. This scrutiny only increases if the woman is the client rather than the attorney.
With this in mind, I was interested in what the New York Times fashion editor’s thoughts were on the recent analysis of clothing choices of high-profile female defendants. I will say, given that the byline only mentioned women, I anticipated a deep dive into what the outfits signaled intertwined with a conversation of the sexist power dynamics in the courtroom. To say I was disappointed is an understatement.
Rather than explore why the focus is just on what women wear to court, Friedman attempted to mitigate the gendered disparity in a throwaway paragraph briefly mentioning Roger Stone. Judging courtroom fashion is “one way we pass judgment, and not just when it comes to women.” At this point, I rolled my eyes and continued. Friedman mentions that Stone opted for a navy suit before moving on to focus on the fashion choices of seven women. Friedman does not focus on the cut of Stone’s suit in the way she describes Lindsey Lohan’s “very short, clingy dresses”, nor does she talk about an outfit Stone wore during a previous public outing in the way she pronounces Cardi B’s “fringed hot pants and a floral leather corset.” Friedman could not even muster the effort to look up who made Stone’s suit but made sure we knew what brand of handbag Martha Stewart carried in 2004.
I could give Friedman the benefit of the doubt and say maybe her intentions were to stress the difference between male and female courtroom scrutiny. But then I remember that weak line that reeked of “but, but, men have to deal with this too.” And then I remember she is a senior editor at the New York Times and could make an actual effort to explicitly explore this sexism in a thoughtful dialogue instead of penning what could be a string of Instagram comments pasted together. If she was feeling particularly plucky, she could even explore why we consider the women who wear trousers to court as being more serious and aware of their situation while women who wear dresses and skirts emphasize naiveté and innocence. Instead, I am left with the knowledge that Winona Ryder’s Peter Pan collared dress is “conservative but very chic.”
Next semester, I start competing in mock trial competitions for my law school. I have a skirt suit and a pantsuit in my closet, ready to go. Our trial advocacy department is largely run by female attorneys who are powerhouses in their own right. I am no longer forced to wrestle into pantyhose at the unthoughtful direction of male instructors. Instead, I will have to weigh each situation, consider my audience, and reach for the skirt or trousers that will best represent my advocacy.
Is that fun? Is that fair? Does that help address the perverse sexism that wears on us before we even step into the well of a courtroom? No, no, and no. But that is a much clearer picture of the choices we make and the ruling we all receive before a judge utters a word.