Law in Contemporary Society
I am having trouble understanding what is at the crux of the discussion, in class and in the comments on Mina's paper, about clothes and class. I see that we categorize each other according to socioeconomic status, based on our clothes. Yet, Eben observes that it is a rare law student who dresses properly for an interview (I, for instance, know next to nothing about suits, let alone the nuances of buttons and collars). So we can assume that many incorrectly attired law students are offered jobs anyway, and learn to dress properly for their respective jobs once they already have them. It follows then, that I wear will depend on what I do, and not vice versa. If I change jobs, my clothes will change. So if clothes are not a bar to raising one's socioeconomic status, but rather an indication of that status once attained, where and when does the relationship between clothes and class become important?

-- ClaireOSullivan - 11 May 2008

For my own curiosity (and probably use), what is the proper shirt collar and tie for an interview? This question is mostly directed Eben but an answer from someone from the ruling class would suffice.

-- JulianBaez - 11 May 2008

Julian, flipping through some pictures on various firm websites, I would suggest wearing the following to an interview (note that I grew up part of the hoi polloi and own exactly one wearable suit, so I don't know much about dressing to impress anyone):

Tie: 4 in hand knot, solid (but not too bold) color with a conservative repeating pattern. No wool or knit ties and stay away from tie bars, pins, etc. The few partners who tied half-windsor knots were in non-US offices or pretty young.

Shirt: White, pressed broadcloth with 2.5" or 3" point collar and traditional spread. Run away from anything with a wide spread, rounded tips, or buttons (although a few partners were sporting button-downs, I just can't imagine that is appropriate).

Also, please note, that while I believe my advice to be accurate it couuld be (1) just plain wrong or (2) a subconscious attempt to prevent you from wasting your life as Sullivan and Cromwell.

-- AdamCarlis - 11 May 2008

  • See how well that worked? I left a question hanging, and Adam did the sensible thing: because he wanted to learn something, he went and looked. Turns out it's not too hard, right? Particularly not in the Age of the Internet, when the human primate tendency towards imitation doesn't mean You Had to Be There. So, without any actual time imprisoned in the ruling class, he figured out that what they wear to have their picture on the website is probably what you want to wear to the interview. I would say that there's an immensity of history in shirtings, and I would characterize the tie as "solid dark saturated color or light pastel, possibly with a conservative repeating pattern, or regimental stripe," but otherwise I don't think Adam's research-based recommendation can be improved upon for the purpose.

  • I think the rest of this conversation is fascinating, too, and I don't think you give yourselves sufficient credit. But you really don't need me right now, despite all the complaining about my absence.

    • I decided that I needed the professor/former corporate lawyer's opinion on the matter to avoid learning from another 9 year old on the street. Adam's advice soounded good but advice you hear on the street normally sounds plausible. - Julian Baez

On Claire's original point, it must feel nice for interviewers - even the underlings - to see all the incorrectly attired law students and know that they (the interviewers) would never make such an embarrassing mistake.

Maybe the importance of clothing isn't from the perspective of the job applicant (who probably will get it wrong, and might come across as too eager if he gets it right), but from the perspective of the people who aren't just breaking in. They're already comfortable with the clothing they wear and they get to look down on those trying to break into their field and feel good about the fact that they're no longer making clothing mistakes. Of course, they also long for the day when they can make their own mistakes, trying to break into the next level up.

-- MichaelBerkovits - 11 May 2008

I'm a bit bothered by the fact that the reaction to Eben's commentary on class and clothing is, "well, what is the right clothing and how do I not screw up?" rather than "forget that, we're a new generation and we're going to forge our own path." Are you all really so thoughtlessly ambitious that you're going to let your employer dictate how many buttons go on your shirt??

-- KateVershov - 11 May 2008

Kate, I agree completely. I'm actually a little confused by all this "dress the part" stuff. I might be completely naive, or just plain wrong, but I feel like I see wildly successful people all the time who don't buy in to the mentality that the suit makes the man. It seems like that idea is a relic of old-world socialite etiquette, that is only going to grow less relevant with time. I'm sure, of course, that in some circles it will decline more slowly, and I have no doubt that the legal profession will be one of those circles. But even in the law, I don't see how it's possible that the rules of professional decorum could stay the same after our generation takes the helm. Not to say that Cravath is going to change it's dress code to bermuda shorts and t-shirt, just that some of these formalistic conventions are going to become less important.

To be fair, though, I have no real professional experience whatsoever, which I guess makes me totally unqualified to talk about professional etiquette.

-- JuliaS - 11 May 2008

Kate, I think my question may not have been clear enough. I'm trying to figure out why it is important to talk about the connection between class and clothing at all, when to my mind it is only a very small sector of the population that is even aware of the significance of fabrics, colours and collars as discussed in class. If the majority of people don't even know these rules, then we can't be held back by not conforming to them (unless, I suppose, we are interested in breaking into the ruling class). So they don't seem to contribute in any meaningful way to the rigidity of class distinctions (except at the very top) or the ability of individuals to move up or down in the socioeconomic strata.

Although- while I'm not particularly worried about wearing the "right" or "wrong" outfit to an interview, because I'm not convinced that it matters (for the reasons I gave above)- is it really fair to admonish people for wanting to be dressed appropriately? Whether or not we like it, dress codes exist in pretty much every job, and rejecting them seems like a fairly meaningless form of rebellion that could potentially result in the frustration of our professional goals.

-- ClaireOSullivan - 11 May 2008

My comment was not addressed to you, Claire. And no, rejecting a dress code that is so exacting as to dictate the brands you buy and the number of buttons that your shirt has, is not a meaningless form of rebellion. Notice that what we're talking about isn't the difference between showing up to an interview in jeans v. a suit. We're no longer talking about dressing "appropriately." We're talking about dressing to let everyone know your class. We're talking about minutia. Regulating (even implicitly) the minute details of one's appearance strikes me as a very serious violation of autonomy and self-expression. I think of the things that I wrap my body in as a very personal and fundamental sort of choice. But hey, if you really want to go work for someone who will think less of you because you wore an ivory shirt instead of a white shirt, go right ahead. If someone doesn't hire me because they're not impressed with the cut of my suit, then I don't really want to work for them anyway. Furthermore, there are things in life more important than "professional goals." Keeping your dignity is one of them.

-- KateVershov - 11 May 2008

The reasons i asked about the appropriate attire are

1) Eben made it clear he knew the answer but chose not to share it. This is annoying and since i wanted the information I chose to try to press him on it.

2) I am willing to suffer the minor indignities of dressing the part if it will help me get the job I want. Its just a cost benefit thing. A good possible counter argument to this (which I use to justify the failings of my closet) is that I wouldn't want to work for people who would care about something so trivial. I just see the clothes as a means to an ends though. Whether we're lawyers or not you will have to suffer minor indignities in order to please your superiors. This good will will most likely you give us the opportunity to do bigger and better things. Besides, it just gives me one less thing to think about when i'm getting prepared for an interview.

-- JulianBaez - 11 May 2008

I mean, I just see all these things (suits instead of jeans, brand choice, shirt colour) as arbitrary concessions to the society we have to live and work in. I definitely agree that showing you know the difference between a suit and jeans is different from showing that you know the difference between an ivory and a white shirt. But it seems to me like a difference of degree rather than type.

-- ClaireOSullivan - 11 May 2008

I hope you guys don’t mind, but I would like to redirect the conversation a little bit. Maybe we could get back to Eben’s response to Mina’s paper. I am sure men are judged by their clothing as well, but women experience a different kind of judgment. Whether or not the person who made the boot comment meant to be sexist, the fact that comment had such an effect on Mina is meaningful. I really do not think men think about their image the way women do. To be taken seriously women have to tone down the cute and the sex.

Also, I would like to answer Claire’s original question (“where and when does the relationship between clothes and class become important?”) with another question: When didn’t this relationship exist? I gladly concede that my reaction is probably a product of my personal experience, but I cannot remember a time when class and clothing were not related. Would you mind clarifying the question? Are we being law specific? Are you wondering lawyers must figure out how to dress like a lawyer?

-- ThaliaJulme - 11 May 2008

For whatever this is worth, I think Eben’s comments on a day close to the end of the semester were the starting point of all of this. Recall when he shared with us that, for example, custom-tailored suits that have real button holes on the cuff of the sleeves are distinguished from off-the-rack ones that don’t have real button holes. You know that this raised the anxiety level in the room, especially among those male students who never knew this, and therefore wondered what else they didn’t know. Then his comment on Mina’s paper about the collar and tie being the tell-all to interviewers – but then not sharing what IS the correct collar/tie choice – raised blood pressure levels among these self-doubting men in our class all over again. (I just hope he continues to act like he doesn’t know quite as much about women’s clothing, so that we women don’t start having reason to let our minds run with fear, too.) Although many will take issue with this, I think men are more prone to wanting to comply with whatever it takes to get to the top – many of them want families and figure that it may be the case that they will be the primary breadwinners, if not the sole breadwinners (I know, I know, I’m older, so while this viewpoint seems less relevant today than a generation ago, I believe that old impulses die hard, especially when, after all, the men in our class are influenced by their fathers). I’m generalizing here, but I believe many of the men in our class want to get it right so that they minimize the issues that may cause them to sacrifice something that they consider valuable. Desperate, maybe, but just remember, women oftentimes take alternative career paths, and this is socially acceptable, especially if there are children involved, so it makes sense that we hear a lot more anxiety coming from some of the men in our class than the women, and perhaps for good reason.

-- BarbPitman - 11 May 2008

To clarify my original question: I'm wondering what the significance is of the relationship between clothes and class. Is it that clothes make class distinctions visible, and therefore more rigid? Is it that it speaks to a desire to reinforce class distinctions even as we pretend we have moved past them?

My problem with the answers I came up with was: if we assume that class is defined mostly by job, and we don't start "dressing the part" (because we don't know how to) until we already have the part, then clothes are not a bar, or a guaranteed entry, to any particular class. So it would seem that clothes bear very little on our ability to move within the social strata. But I may be making too much of that. What do other people think about this?

-- ClaireOSullivan - 12 May 2008

Class is not defined mostly by job. Certainly some jobs are dispositive, but many are not.

A big law firm hires you to make money off of your labor. They don't particularly care whether you went to Andover and have relatives who came over on the Mayflower. However, they will - as we all do - make instant judgments about you. One judgment will be about class. (How will this person interact with our clients?) This is based on more than clothing, but it will be the first thing noticed. It is true, perhaps, that initial impressions may wear away after months or years on the job, but it will likely take more than "dressing the part" to counteract initial impressions. Clothes may not be a bar to admission, but they are a powerful signifier of intangible characteristics most employers (for better or worse) seek in their future employees (and partners).

Quite possibly Kate is right and we should reject the formalities of dress. I think there may be two problems here (this coming from a guy who wears an undershirt and a black hoodie every day). First, you have to know the rules in order to break them as some will certainly matter more than others. In almost any conservative circle, one can get away with wearing a cheap suit that fits well, but likely couldn’t get away with wearing a cut away collar and a full-windsor knot tied so that the tie rests above the belly button. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it; you should just know that you are breaking the “rule” when you do. Second, it actually has to be worth breaking the rule. If you, like Kate (and I put myself in this category as well) take great pride in how your dress reflects you as a person, then you may be more willing to take risks with dress as the consequences (not getting a job you think you want or going to a client meeting you were hoping to attend) do not outweigh the loss of autonomy. However, if you couldn’t care less about what you wear, then breaking the rules just to break them seems pointless.

Finally, this isn’t just about big law firms. When I hired teachers I looked very closely at what they wore to the interview. It told me a great deal about who they were as a person and how they viewed the job they were seeking. Certainly dress was not dispositive, but it was important.

-- AdamCarlis - 12 May 2008

A lot of these comments personally strike me as naively "cute." I will bow my head in humility and say that this is only one man's opinion, but I am going to share it.

Clothes, like poetry, painting, drama, architecture, etc., are articles of cultural production; the art is fashion. Whether from Charles Baudelaire to Roland Barthes, it has been said that the unique aspect of this form of cultural production is its relentless inclination towards alteration. It is, as Adam said, a signifier of something attached to our human bodies, observable by the stranger's eye and interpreted by the stranger's mind. It is an easy interpretive method to form conclusions of cognitive disassociation - yes, on the surface, that person is like me; no, that person isn't. Because fashion is an art undergoing incessant alteration at quicker rates than any other form of cultural production, it is also usually the first signifier of cultural change; see, for instance, here for an extreme example. It is perhaps even easier to adopt many of these beliefs that conforming to some fashion ideal dilutes or restricts personal autonomy and self-expression since law school students, from their appearances, represent a pretty homogeneous group of wardrobes. It is therefore harder to make distinctions among ourselves on these grounds. As a soon-to-be lawyer, when I accidentally stepped into a gothic drum-n-bass club in Vienna this summer, I stayed for the experience but certainly felt uncomfortable in my jeans and green t-shirt. The white laces on some folks (a well-known sign of Austrian neo-Nazism) didn't help relieve my discomfort. Closer to home, the number of lawyers getting off at the Bedford stop on the L train to return to their homes in Hipsterville or "Billyburg" is probably slim; that they will be dressed in their V-neck sweaters with buttons in the front and wearing jeans so tight as to appear painted on is even slimmer.

I think that Adam is right. Since fashion is a signifier of our cultural economy at any given moment, you should constantly observe what people are wearing to take its contemporary temperature, catalogue these observations, and plan accordingly. Fashion seems like a good and easy proxy to understand organizational psychologies and plan your next movement for optimal success. But the important point is to be self-conscious about it, despite all the negative effects the tabloids of fashion-obsessed tabloids and other pop culture literature, because there is something particularly anthropological about fashion - from its importance in religious or tribal groups to my mother's trunk of bell-bottoms and puffy shirts.

-- JesseCreed - 12 May 2008

I thought Eben had a monopoly on calling arguments "cute"?

-- KateVershov - 14 May 2008

Hence, my "quotations."

-- JesseCreed - 14 May 2008

I know I'm very late on this thread but as someone who grew up with a father who is a serious traditionalist when it comes to things like work clothes I thought I'd chime in with my two cents. I think a lot of the reason people worry about the "right" thing to wear and not "breaking the rules" so to speak is that we all know that at a certain level we are judged (in a business environment/interview) in some way on our clothes. Though this is silly, I think that myself and a lot of other people would rather dress according to the rules than be judged, no matter if it is for good or for bad, based on our clothes. It is for this reason that growing up my dad hammered home such seemingly arbitrary rules like:

-When wearing dress socks always make sure they are over the calf and not ankle length. You never want to show skin (as a man) when crossing your legs.

-Always wear a belt, no matter what,

And other seemingly tiny points that I am only now, as I start contemplating a reality where I have to wear a suit every day, fully appreciating. Some of these rules I've disregarded (notably, the one that a guy's hair should never be so long that it touches his collar) but for the most part I'm happy that I had these lessons drilled into my head as a kid. It simply makes life easier if you don't have to worry about standing out because of your clothes, and I think it allows you, at a certain mental level to try and focus on setting yourself apart based on your merits. At the end of the day the little rules of sartorial arcana (like what kind of lapels your tuxedo should have or how many button holes for studs your tuxedo shirt should have) are, in my opinion, where one's clothes can truly denote class and be used by utter snobs to distinguish themselves from those they feel "do no belong." However, when it comes to wearing a suit and dressing for work and interviews, I personally believe the rules exist, and should be followed, to remain essentially innocuous, so that people can see and judge you for you, not for your clothes. Think of it as camoflauge in a way.

Also, finally to help ease peoples' fears if there are lingering doubts amongst anyone out there (and unfortunately I'm speaking mainly to the guys out there) as to what to wear for interviews and the dos and donts of dressing to be "part of the class" then I'd suggest a simple trip down to 45 and Madison to the big Brooks Brothers store (or the nearby J. Press). They've been dressing the same group of young, twenty-something students, interviewees, and professionals for ages, they're almost never overly flashy (these are the guys who made the relatively loose fitting "sack-suit" the standard dress for young american men) and they can help you find the kind of basic, simple shirt and tie that will be appropriate in absolutely any situation. Plus when you walk in you'll realize that a lot of the salesmen have been working there it seems like since the store opened and have the experience to answer almost any question you have so that you avoid looking like one of those ridiculous ex football players you see on TV every sunday in the fall wearing some shiny 5 button monstrosity of a suit.

-- AlexLawrence - 02 Jun 2008

I wonder whether the “business casual” concept has complicated traditional standards of attire. My office is supposedly business casual, but almost all of the partners always wear suits. I wonder if it’s just because they have more client meetings, have dozens of nice suits that would otherwise go to waste, it’s a “status” thing (either intentional or subconscious), or some combination of these. Full-time associates are usually always “business casual” with an emphasis on the business part. Legal assistants are also always business casual, but to varying degrees--from college casual minus the jeans plus a collar to full business suits minus the tie. As for the other summer associates, it’s an even more mixed bag. Are there also business casual rules or do they vary by office and firm?

-- EdwardNewton - 04 Jun 2008

I think Edward's point is really interesting because I've always heard the maxim that you're supposed to dress for a job one station above your own. Wouldn't an associate wearing a suit stand out as a little ridiculous?

-- AndrewWolstan - 05 Jun 2008

I think Edward's question/point about the partners could also just be a generational thing. If you think about it most of the partners (or at least the senior ones) probably had to wear a suit every day when they started out and it's just become a habit as much as anything else. As for an associate wearing a suit I don't think it would be that ridiculous. If you think about it, especially during the summer, you're jacket is probably going to spend most of the day on the back of your chair anyway, so if you're wearing a conservative dark suit what is the real difference between wearing a shirt and slacks and a shirt and the pants from your suit? You don't have to wear the jacket but it's there if you need it, and frankly it's probably safer to have it in case you get called to a client meeting or something like that than to not have it. Moreover, depending on the level of formality at your office and your own willingness to stand out, you can always try the suit/no tie combo. It's a bit "european" (for lack of a better term and because it is the definite dress code at my office here in France this summer) but it might help bridge the gap between over-dressed and business casual.

-- AlexLawrence - 05 Jun 2008

The biggest problem I find with business casual is the wide spectrum people use to define it. I'm working on Capitol Hill this summer and my office ahs a business casual dress code when Congress isn't in session. Watching the employees entering the building, I'm amazed at the varying definitions of business casual.

My boss, the chief of staff, is currently wearing something that I would have never considered business casual before (plaid short sleeve button down shirt untucked, jeans, sneakers). This is far different than Alex's office where suit/no tie would be acceptable. If I wore that today I'd be way over dressed.

-- JulianBaez - 06 Jun 2008

I'd like to echo the "business casual" problem. It's the equivalent of saying something is "interesting"--it's an empty, overused modifier that lacks true meaning. That said, thank God my firm is business casual this summer because I know it means I don't have to wear a suit! Skirts, hosiery, shoes, jewelry, jackets, color limitations are all still being hashed out. As far as the class connection, it's there but often inaccurate. It's one mutable quality that we continue to rely on for social cues (which makes sense to some extent), but it's also highly inaccurate. Ex. There are hipsters who spend tons of money to look like everything was purchased vintage or just-rolled-out-of-bed, while broke college students scrap to buy expensive(looking) suits to fit in at their jobs. Another question is at what point does individual preference/style come into play in this sort of discussion? I know for me, I like to at least know what the rules are so I can bend/break them intentionally.

Men, at least you don't have to wear pantyhose. I found these discussions entertaining. For your enjoyment/procrastination: Jezebel talks hosiery Wall Street Journal

-- MiaWhite - 06 Jun 2008

Here's an interesting article I just found on Lexis about dressing the part.

Does dress really affect your success? 5/28/2008 Do the partners at your firm wear business suits every day? Every day except Friday? Or just when they meet with clients? Not even then? A number of factors can come into play: East or West Coast, clients in banking vs. technology, partners with a more traditional viewpoint or a more casual style. With these variables and more, does it matter what you wear to work? In a word: yes.

Many firms no longer require the formal business attire that was expected 20 years ago—and some even make “business casual” a part of their recruiting. While the quality of your work clearly matters more than the quality of your tailoring, your success depends on making a favorable impression with senior associates and partners—and possibly even with clients.

Find out what professionals in your firm expect. What type of dress is consistent with the firm’s brand and style? What conveys respect? What’s a practical way to meet expectations? If in doubt, ask someone you can trust who has a good reputation in your firm.

Here are some related comments from 2008 articles and blogs:

“Perhaps several years ago, with a hot economy, associates could take more liberties with their attire. But if the recession forces more layoffs, and a firm must choose between a professionally-dressed third year associate and a sloppy one, it’s not hard to predict who will keep the job: the one who’s dressed for it.” —Carolyn Elefant on AmericanLawyer? .com Legal Blog Watch

“Well … what about the west coast where you have to interact with dot com executives that have a different take on fashion. Showing up in a suit at a tech firm may be frowned upon.” —Fashion Police on Law Blog

“At our bay area office of a medium-sized national firm, even the partners wear jeans. Khakis at the most. Like Fashion Police said, you can’t just drop in at Google wearing a suit.” —anon on Law Blog

“As the father of two attorneys and a businessman who sometimes needs to utilize an attorney, I offer the following perspective. Dress as you want to be perceived. Dress as who you want to become.” —Father of Attorneys and Client of Attorneys on Law Blog

“Many experienced lawyers see their wardrobe as a tool to win the trust of clients, juries and judges. Legal associates who aren’t sartorially prepared may not be invited along to a new-client pitch or to take a leading role in court, regardless of the office’s stated ‘business casual’ dress code.” —Christina Binkley, “Law Without Suits: New Hires Flout Tradition,” The Wall Street Journal Online, January 31, 2008

“I find that I work more efficiently and produce better quality work-product when dressed professionally. I think the whole suit or shirt-and-tie thing is as much about a mindset as it is about looking nice. One can express their individualism in a nice suit and tie just as easily in jeans and a wrinkled polo. Although, I must admit, it is a rule at the firm I work for that shirt-and-tie are required everyday workday except friday.” —UB2L on Law Blog

“Jeans and other casual attire are common in Denver.” —Denver Lawyer on Law Blog

“I believe a lot of the young associates are not necessarily in tune with the “real world.” I am an in-house attorney working for a large company, but before that I had my own practice and I worked for a mid-size firm and I think it was always helpful to ‘dress the part.’ Whether we like it or not attorneys are judged by everyone (lawyers, partners, corporations, clients, co-workers, family, friends, strangers etc) everyday based on 1st impressions, which is how you look, not your intellect ... .” —Another Perspective on Law Blog

“If they cannot distinguish between proper and improper dress, what other rational skills are they lacking?” —Anon on Law Blog

“Those who think that associates can wear whatever they want miss the point. Who do associates work for? Law firm associates work for the partners, not the clients. They should dress to satisfy the partner, not themselves. Satisfying the clients is the partner’s job. … It may feel silly to ask a boss how they want you to appear—particularly in the law firm culture where everyone is a know-it-all—but in my experience, bosses appreciate subordinates’ awareness of their role and willingness to play it.” —Gotta Serve Someone on Law Blog

“I am a woman and consultant at a Big Law firm. I always wear a suit (or at least a jacket) and a blouse with a collar. I believe my appearance makes the partners take my work seriously and earns their respect. …As for keeping a quick change suit in the office, I know quite a few partners have suits and pressed shirts on a hook on the back of their office door.” —Non-attorney consultant at law firm

“If you are partnership material, you dress like the partners, and you already know this.” —PARTNER

-- JulianBaez - 06 Jun 2008



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