Pleas of ‘Not Guilty by Reason of Temporary Fashion Insanity’ Won’t Cut It; Lawyers and Witnesses Are Also Offenders
Sloppy jeans and exposed tattoos are common in court.
There’s a place where first impressions are even more crucial than at a job interview or at dinner with our future in-laws: the courtroom.
Yet court officials are constantly surprised by the imprudence of people’s courtroom-clothing choices.
One doctor in Texas appeared at his own medical-malpractice trial in blue jeans. “In the old days, parents used to teach us to dress up in certain places,” says Richard Waites, a psychologist and trial consultant who was working for the hospital that employed the doctor.
Can clothes tip the scales of justice? We’d like to think not. There are the merits of the case, after all. But as Dr. Waites suggests, “Justice isn’t black and white. It’s gray most of the time.”
One California judge I spoke with says she takes account of both the appearance and the behavior of those who come before her court. Sloppy dress at trial might seem to add to the case against a father accused of neglectful child-rearing, she says. Or a woman who is claiming poverty in a financial hearing might undermine her case if she’s wearing highly expensive clothing.
Juries may be even more judgmental, especially as they sit for hours with little to look at … but you.
“Jurors notice everything,” says Patricia Glaser, a business litigator whose clients have included Kirk Kerkorian and Conan O’Brien. “They notice the wedding ring, they notice if your hair is parted on the right or left, they notice if it’s an Italian-cut suit or a Brooks Brothers, they notice if your shoes are scuffed every day, just like they notice if you’re on time or not.”
Courts have rules of decorum for both behavior and dress. It’s rare for judges to impose sanctions. When it does happen, it sometimes makes headlines: In May, a woman was held in contempt of court and jailed over a T-shirt with a message a judge found offensive, according to news reports. In April, a man wearing black jeans was turned away from an Inkster, Mich., court—missing his traffic-court date.
When going to court, most of us would be advised to look like the embodiment of the Boy Scout creed—trustworthy, loyal and helpful. “It’s like dressing for church,” says divorce lawyer Stacy Phillips, whose clients have included a sweet-looking Britney Spears in polka dots. She has lent her own clothes to ill-prepared clients, and their moms, on the way in to court.
It’s also important to think about the more subtle messages that apparel can send. While a business suit is usually a safe choice, there may be cases in which it’s not. Ms. Phillips says she represented a high-ranking female executive recruiter, who favored severe dark business suits, in a child-custody case. She sent the woman shopping for “pastels and skirts,” she says. “I wanted her to look vulnerable.” Meanwhile, a double-breasted suit, with its air of entitlement, may be too smug.
Even ties—while usually advisable if the choice is conservative and doesn’t attract attention—may not be right in every situation. Ms. Glaser says she recently asked her real estate-developer clients not to wear ties in order to soften their edge. They don’t normally wear ties, she noted, so they don’t look comfortable in them.
For women, conservative slacks are as acceptable as a skirt or dress, according to nearly every court official I interviewed. Yet all of the women (the judge and the attorneys) say they prefer to wear skirts themselves in court.
While there was little consensus on pantyhose, there’s no downside to wearing them (fashion considerations aside). There is, though, a possible downside to going bare-legged: Plenty of people believe fervently that a lady isn’t fully dressed without her hose. If you get one of those judges, a pair of sheer nylons could prove a worthy investment.
I spent a day in Los Angeles Superior Court recently—for research purposes, thankfully—and was surprised at the variety of looks. I saw a tattoo on a lawyer’s neck, for instance, and a lot of tees, untucked shirts, and jeans, both neat and sloppy, on litigants and witnesses. Dr. Waites says tattoos and business casual garb are more common these days, even among lawyers, but he wagers they’re a fad that will quickly disappear.
The judge I spoke with says it isn’t necessary to wear expensive clothes. I observed a middle-aged Latino couple who were tenants testifying in a trial involving housing code violations. The couple looked as though they had dressed up for church, she in a blue floral dress and jacket, and he in a pressed shirt and slacks. The landlord’s representatives looked wrinkled and overly business-casual. They also seemed cocky. Was it the evidence or fashion factors that left my sympathies with the tenants?
“What we wear says so much about you,” says Nina Garcia, a judge on the Lifetime Television show “Project Runway” and author of the recently released book “What To Wear Where.” Before a court appearance, she suggests asking, “How do you want to portray yourself?
Ms. Garcia’s list of courtroom no-nos includes see-through or low-cut clothes, mini dresses, heavy makeup, loud patterns, clashing colors and noisy bangles. She advises looking for conservative clothes from “wholesome brands” like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor or Brooks Brothers.
One parting and practical piece of advice, from Ms. Phillips, the lawyer: Take a jacket or sweater. Courtrooms can get chilly in many ways.
Christina Binkley, Wall Street Journal
Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704554104575435683853964588.html