Are Women Attorneys Being Stricken by a Pantsuit Pandemic?

The dress-code issue took front and center during a panel discussion of federal court judges from the Seventh Circuit. The judges raised the issue of what one jurist described as “the Ally McBeal look,” complaining that female attorneys dress inappropriately when appearing in court. The comment and ensuing discussion has sparked a debate across the blogosphere.

For me, the comment raises multiple questions. First, do women really dress as badly as the panelists described? Second, if women are making such horrible fashion choices, why are they doing so–ignorance or disregard?  Third, assuming the pantsuit pandemic is not limited to the Seventh Circuit, what’s to be done about it?

I share my thoughts to the first two questions below and will share my solution to the problem in a subsequent post.  But, before turning to the questions, but feel compelled to first disclose where I stand on the fashion spectrum.  I fall somewhere on the “fashion forward” side of the line.  For example, my electric blue patent leather pumps usually get an eyebrow raise or two, as do my leopard-print calf-hair Lambertson Truex stilettos. I am a self-confessed shoe junkie.

Shoes aside, I definitely fall on the conservative side of the line, as well.  I guarantee that no judge would ever comment that my hemline is inappropriately high–in or out of court.  Never ever.  So I come from a position that women can dress in a way that reflects their individuality and that is perfectly current without compromising their attire-integrity.

Do women really dress as badly as the panelists described?

Certainly not all women.  Unfortunately, there are some women who seem to have missed the fashion boat altogether and whose fashion choices are so traumatizing to those around them that they become permanently emblazoned in our memories.  Yes, I’ve known my fair share of these women.  And it is just as uncomfortable for women as it is for men when a woman’s attire includes a skirt that is too shirt or a blouse that is too low-cut.  If Gisele Bundchen came to court in a super-mini skirt, I doubt there’d be so many complaints.  But these are no Giseles!  It’s just not a picture anyone–male or female–wants to see.

Based only on my own, unscientific observations, I’d point to the following three top offenders:  (1) skirts that are too short; (2) button-down shirts that are buttoned too low; and (3) any clothing item that is just too tight.

Why do they commit these acts of fashion shelf-sabotage?

There are two possible explanations.  One–they just don’t know any better.  Two–they know better but blow off this knowledge in favor of wearing what they think is the better choice.

For the first option, it seems difficult to believe, doesn’t it, that a woman would make it her entire life and never notice that she doesn’t dress like those around her.  It does.  But I think that is largely the case.  I think that the second option, the women who act in flagrant disregard to the fashion “rules” despite being fully familiar with the rules, is actually less common.  Oh, sure, it happens but I think they are repeat offenders because they believe they look better when they break the rules.  Which brings us back to scenario #1–they really don’t know better.

In the next part of this post, I’ll reveal what I believe the solution is to this crisis of the catwalk.  But, in the meantime, you can read more about past dress-code and attire issues in these earlier posts:

What Happens When You Fail to Follow Workplace Dress Codes in BigLaw

Facial Hair: Style Statement of the Unemployed

Honey, Does This Outfit Make Me Look Unethical?

NYT Says the Man-Short Is Headed to an Office Near You

I’m Too Sexy For This Job: The Beginnings of a Failure-to-Hire Lawsuit

“Are You My Lawyer or the Janitor?” The lawyer’s dress-code pendulum swings back.

Gender Discrimination & Dress Codes. Who wears the skirt, I mean, pants in your office?

What Not to Wear to Work: More Style Rules for the Modern Worker