Musings on Clothing, Gender, and Law

Anonymous

I’m appearing in Chambers (motions court) for the first time soon. I know exactly what I should wear — my black suit with a white silk shirt with black details. It is my most professional and chic ensemble. It is the most likely to make me feel like I fit in with all the other lawyers in the room.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about clothing lately. Clothing and appearances. The messages that clothing sends; the judgments that are made based on appearances. As a woman and an articling student it seems like these issues are always on my mind. I work in a small firm with one owner — a man — and ten other lawyers, all but one of them women. What does it say that the two men wear suits to work every day but most of the women do not?

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I go to a CBA Social Justice Section meet-up. Hardly anyone is in a suit. Lots of sweaters. I think, Yes, these are my people.

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My friend tells me that during her summer at a Big Law firm in Toronto she is never not wearing a suit jacket, and neither is anyone else. “Business casual is just an invitation for disaster,” she says with certainty. “There are too many ways to go wrong.”

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I go to a CBA Intellectual Property section social event and everyone is in flashy suits. They all ask “Where are you?” Meaning, “What firm do you work for?” There are only a handful of IP firms in Vancouver and I am not working at any of them, so answering this question feels awkward to me. Like it’s really obvious that I don’t belong in their club. I wish I had worn my blazer instead of this black shirt.

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I show up to the courthouse for my first Chambers appearance early. I’m meeting my supervising lawyer here at 9:30. I’m nervous because, due to an extraordinary number of laundry malfunctions this week, I had to wear a light grey suit instead of the black suit I had planned. I’m not sure light grey is appropriate — court seems like a black suit kind of place. I watch all the other arrivals while I wait for my supervisor, and sure enough, everyone (except those who are obviously not lawyers) are in black, navy, and the occasional dark grey. My supervisor appears at 9:40, also in black. How out of place do I feel? More importantly, will the Master (judge) take me less seriously as a result of the lighter coloured suit?

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Another friend has been a lawyer at a non-profit litigation firm for about five years. He recently cut his hair into a mohawk. It looks fantastic. He is planning to enjoy the mohawk for the next month only, because he has a Chambers hearing in about a month and he will have to lose the mohawk before then. I ask him if he’s sure it would be a problem. He’s not, actually. It would depend on what the client wanted of course, but the really interesting question is whether or not the judge would hear him. If he combed it back instead of making it stand up? Maybe. We’re not sure.

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I strategize with a friend about what she should wear to her hearing at the Régie du logement later this week. Her apartment had bedbugs almost constantly for the better part of a year, but her landlord will likely say that there were no bedbugs and that she is making it up, or that she was imagining them. Choosing the right outfit to counteract the “hysterical female” trope is key. But she doesn’t want to seem like an over-eager and litigious law student either. The power suit from summering in Toronto is out. What about a cardigan? Could be perfect, but my friend doesn’t own a cardigan, and makes it a policy not to wear them. The reason? “I’ve never heard anyone talk about a ‘power cardigan,’” she proclaims.

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My co-worker asks if I have ever noticed that sometimes, there seems to be reverse discrimination when it comes to appropriate office wear. Like, have I ever noticed that it is considered appropriate for black women to wear braids to the office, but if she, a white woman, wore braids it would be seen as unprofessional? Or how Indian women can wear henna but white women can’t? I stare at her for a moment trying to fathom how to answer this question before deciding on what feels like a cop-out: “No, I have never noticed that.” The topic is dropped.

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My Toronto friend tells me how her opinions of law firms were shaped by the height of the shoes the women in the firm wore. Everyone in heels over three inches? Not the firm for her. My friend has very short hair and wears pant suits. Sometimes, in meetings, clients have addressed both my friend and the male associate with her as “sir.” No one but my friend appears to have noticed.

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My manager wears skin-tight pleather pants and four-inch heels. In the office! I shouldn’t care. I am a feminist. I am, in principle, opposed to policing what other women wear. But I still find myself inwardly cringing, and feeling like her outfit is wildly inappropriate. Is this internalized patriarchy?

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Back to the Chambers appearance: all the lawyers are in their suits, and all the court staff are dressed business casual. Interesting. Outside of this place, those suits may indicate some sort of power. Inside, they hold power too, but not as much as the courthouse staff. I hold my breath as I hand over my order to be vetted by the Registry. If the form is wrong, I won’t be able to have this order signed by the judge later. It’s a minor inconvenience, perhaps, but it will feel like a failure. It is the Registry clerk’s call. His suit-less self has all the power. He has some questions about the form. Thankfully, my supervisor is there to answer them, and the order’s form is approved.

After the Registry, we go upstairs and the suits (all dark grey, black, and navy, except for me of course) line up in the courtroom. One by one we tell the courtroom clerks our name, the matter we are appearing for, and the length of time we expect to take. The clerks are full of questions, and full of control. It is they who set the schedule; they who call us up, one by one; they who demand that we provide materials for the judge; they who will send some of us to other rooms to be heard by other judges. We all wait, thousands of dollars of collective billable time, for the court staff to decide our procedural fate. They, with their shrugs-over-tank-tops-and-skirts, facial piercings, and even large, visible tattoos, hold the power, while we, with our suits and shiny shoes, do not.

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In the end, I lose the application. Next time I’ll wear black.

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