‘Fashist,” pronounced ‘Fa-shist, distinguishes those who discriminate against the fashion-conscious. To them, dressing the body is a matter of necessity, not aesthetics. Surprising as it may be to these sartorial Luddites, fashion is more than a conduit for narcissistic self-indulgence. The expression of fashion is governed by real conditions in society, and this dependent relationship is evidence of fashion’s oft-unrecognized but discernable impact on identity. Still have doubts? Leave ‘em at the curb alongside the “Power Suit,” a Polyblend that transforms the host so convincingly into a humanoid refrigerator that Michael Bay should gather the Autobots for yet another sequel. While the “Power Suit” was the uniform of choice for a generation of independent, career-minded women who fought for a “seat at the table,” the modern woman must cast off the chains of patriarchal fashion and embrace the styles sported by her contemporaries. Assuming a masculine facade is an antiquated expectation of the modern woman, who can be both a member of the Bar and a Vogue subscriber.
An attorney’s appearance is the first opportunity to convey a particular message, and just as that message changes with circumstance, an attorney’s style must adapt to who and what is being represented. To that end, when New York Times Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic, Vanessa Friedman, asked readers to define “appropriate” business attire, she received nearly 250 conflicting responses, illustrating the shared difficulty in promoting a universally accepted aesthetic. Vanessa Friedman, “‘Appropriate’ Work Dress? Readers Weigh In,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017). Arguably more so for women, who overwhelmingly have far more choices beyond the suit than male colleagues. Although a dress code can curb fashion faux pas, by design a dress code reinforces sex stereotypes, those “widely-held over-simplified expectations about how people of a particular sex or gender should be.” “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression: Local Law No. 3 (2002); N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-102(23),” NYC Commission on Human Rights (June 28, 2016).
In an attempt to eradicate discriminatory dress codes that perpetuate gender stereotypes, the NYC Commission on Human Rights’ “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression,” clarifies, in plain English, New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). Id. Under the NYCHRL, employers are entitled to implement dress codes and require specific grooming or appearance standards; however, any restriction or requirement cannot be gender-specific. Id. Language specifically directed at one gender, or that suggests treating one gender differently than the other, even if perceived to be harmless, is evidence enough of a violation of the NYCHRL, and any such discrimination will require restitution. Id. The NYCHRL supplements the federal government’s Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, which permits differing standards based on sex or gender, so long as they do not impose an undue burden. Id. Disappointingly, the NYCHRL is an outlier. The majority of jurisdictions adhere to the federal standard, eschewing the opportunity to provide broader protections to employees in favor of standards that perpetuate gender stereotypes “based in long-held, traditional gender norms” or which are otherwise considered “innocuous.” Id.
A risk-averse organization can potentially avoid NYCHRL violations by implementing gender-neutral dress codes and grooming standards. However, the broad and restrained language necessary can result in a policy that is rather ambiguous and entirely ineffectual. Any ambiguity will require individual interpretation and sartorial expression that could lead to inter-office conflict. Arguably, the potential offense caused by such expression could be avoided altogether by adopting uniforms, unchanged across genders. Outfitting employees as so would present them as extensions of their employer, but in 2017 New York where employers and employees alike desire boundless autonomy, albeit ironically, the blanket suppression of individualism would not only be wildly unpopular but wholly impractical.
There are a seemingly infinite number of alternatives that will inevitably fall short of the perfect solution, and one can make a case to simply encourage employees to resemble those who reside in corner offices. However, some frankly shocking statistics establish why this too is yet another imperfect alternative. Women presently represent 36 percent of those in the legal profession, and of those studying for their Juris Doctor degree—an obligatory prerequisite to join the legal profession—55,766 are women. “A Current Glance at Women in the Law,” The American Bar Association, January 2017; Elizabeth Olson, “Women Make Up Majority of U.S. Law Students for First Time,” The New York Times (Dec. 16, 2016). Given that for the first time in history the majority of law students in the United States are women, female representation in the legal profession is likely to rise. Yet, it is impracticable to expect these young women attorneys to be led by example when just 25 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female general counsel, and an even leaner 20 percent of Fortune 1000 general counsels are female. “A Current Glance at Women in the Law,” The American Bar Association, January 2017. Of all federal and state judgeships, only 27 percent are held by women. Id. Worse yet, of the top 200 law firms in the United States, a dismal 4 percent has a female managing partner. Selena Rezvani, “Large Law Firms are Failing Women Lawyers,” The Washington Post (Feb. 18, 2014). It is then reasonably challenging for a woman to “dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” when the job of desire is statistically likely to be held by a man.
Curious, then, that the leading ladies that largely dominate primetime television are powerful players who sport Armani in lieu of armor while battling it out in the courts. The average member of the New York State Bar might instinctually fear such a distinctive sartorial aesthetic, but this false fear stems from the human desire to conform in order to be part of a group. Shirley S. Wang, “Success Outside the Dress Code,” The Wall Street Journal (March 17, 2014). In truth, projecting a nonconformist appearance can increase a person’s perceived competence and level of influence. Id. Jolie Andreatta, costume designer on USA’s legal drama, Suits, agrees. “When most people do business suits, they stay on the drabber side, very masculine kind of fabric,” and Andreatta has consistently outfitted the fictional female elites of New York’s corporate law scene in striking ensembles, exclusively designer of course. June Thomas, “How the Costume Designer for Suits Tells Stories Using Just the Right Attire,” Slate (June 11, 2014).
“Suits are like medieval suits of armor. [They] tell us who the person is, what kind of background they [come from], what kind of status they have,” explains Andreatta. Lindzi Scharf, “‘Suits’ Costume Designer on the Show’s Tailor Made Wardrobe,” Entertainment Weekly (July 17, 2013). Assuming this to be true, the appearance of Gina Torres’ character, Managing Partner Jessica Pearson, must communicate that she is capable of quelling countless mutinies and hostile takeovers, and can command the respect of her challengers and subordinates; all of which she has done successfully over the course of seven seasons. Naturally, Andreatta has imagined Pearson in conservative but expertly tailored styles that wholly embrace femininity and serves as fodder for the argument that women can command authority and dress like the women they are.
Nicole Kidman’s character, Celeste White, in HBO’s 2017 limited series, Big Little Lies, is the exception. When pushed to dust off her esquire and defend the First Amendment, she does so in a grey pinstripe suit. The conservative look is made complete by a none too subtle “pussy bow” blouse, the female equivalent of male neckwear. The carefully considered ensemble is an obvious representation of a powerless woman’s misguided attempt to assert strength to her male adversaries under the false assumption that she must adopt a masculine aesthetic to do so. Powerless of course, because Kidman portrays a character systematically abused by her husband. The outfit is not only a plea for help but confirmation that the “Power Suit” is a hollow epithet.
A few workplace fashion tenants are without exception. Attorneys are to avoid clothing that is too tight, too short, or too revealing, and fit is not just an issue with which female attorneys must concern themselves. Equally offensive is a male attorney in a suit so oversized that the jacket sleeves graze his knuckles and the pant leg hem drags along the floor. Projecting an appearance that leaves a positive impression is genderless. Early adopters of the “Power Suit” astutely recognized that in order to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry, women must project strength in a manner easily perceived by suited male colleagues. However, it must not be overlooked that this was a time in which it was not yet wildly offensive to believe the two sexes were of unequal capability. Today, a woman’s 79 cents to a man’s dollar will undoubtedly incite unwelcome consequences for employers, as evidenced by the hostile public reaction to Google’s viral memo which leaked last month. If the thinking regarding the female workforce has evolved, so too must society’s expectations on the appearance of a capable woman in the workplace.