Law in Contemporary Society

Naked, But For My Intellect


My original paper was centered on a personal experience wherein a co-worker had commented on the clothes I was wearing. My goal was to use that experience to explore why I make certain fashion choices—such as wearing skirts and high heels to work—and how these choices affect my sense of accomplishment. The reaction I received, from both Eben and a number of my peers, tells me that the focus of my paper was misplaced. My focus was on fashion choices in relation to gender and sexuality, but the issue that generated interest concerned the role clothes play with regard to identity and class.

The topic of clothes and class has been explored quite thoroughly in the ClothesMaketheLawyer talk and I don’t wish to simply regurgitate arguments that have already been made. So I have decided to use my revision to refactor that talk in order to make the information therein more organized and accessible. See ClassandClothes, for my refactoring of ClothesMaketheLawyer. Please feel free to add and change anything at all.

--Main.MinaNasseri - 25 May 2008

Disclaimer: This essay is based on my personal experience as a woman in the workplace. I am not pointing fingers, at either sex. These are subjective observations and suggestions for personal change in my own life. Comments are both welcome and appreciated!

-- MinaNasseri - 09 Apr 2008

A Moment of Humiliation…

It was my proudest professional moment to date. I was the press secretary of a U.S. Senate campaign. Before me was a room full of leaders from the state’s Democratic Party and I was to convince them to support my candidate. I had worked out my plan of attack: I would walk up to each person, give him a firm handshake, and engage in an intelligent discussion of the campaign and the candidacy. Just then, a fellow staffer turned to me and said, wryly, “Mina, you’ll win that entire room over with those boots you got on.” My sense of accomplishment vanished instantly. I had forgotten what I was wearing-–a knee-length skirt with boots. I had forgotten what I was wearing because I had forgotten it mattered.

…Followed by a Moment of Introspection

That moment led me to ask myself why I wear clothes such as skirts and high heels in the workplace. The simple, superficial answer is because it looks good. I started playing dress-up with my mother’s clothes at age six; at 16, I would beg my parents to let me wear high heels. I have always loved beautiful clothes and wear them, in the workplace and out, for this reason.

The more complicated answer is that I feel better—sexier, more confident, empowered—when wearing a skirt and heels. I admit that such attire is physically uncomfortable. I cannot count the number of blisters I have gotten from wearing high heels or the number of times I had to adjust my skirt and worry about a run in my pantyhose. Yet I have come to accept the discomfort of this attire and have convinced myself that the pain is somehow “worth it.” The truth is, I gladly sacrifice my physical comfort for the sense of empowerment that comes with wearing a skirt or a pair of heels. I find that wearing such clothes in the workplace attracts attention and this attention, in turn, feeds my confidence.

With this realization in hand, I wonder if I would have preferred to have not been wearing a skirt and high heels during my aforementioned "moment of humiliation." I stood before a room of mostly men feeling prepared and confident to speak to each one. Did I feel prepared and confident in spite of my attire or because of it?

The Cost of Looking Good and Feeling Good

My decision to wear high-heeled shoes and skirts to work can, however, come at a cost to my image as a female professional. I consider myself an “accomplished” individual; I have never achieved something, academically or professionally, without having earned it. Yet my choice of business attire diverts attention from my accomplishments and capabilities to what I happen to be wearing. “You’ll win that entire room over with those boots you got on” transformed my history of education, three years of work experience, and my hard-earned qualifications into nothing more than the product of a fashion choice.

This focus on a woman’s fashion decisions, and its tendency to divert attention from her qualifications, exists in the legal profession as well. When 1L OCI was looming and the Career Services Office was giving interview tips, I overheard one of my peers discussing "advice" she had received. She had been told that female applicants ought to wear skirts to interviews. What purpose could wearing a skirt to an interview serve other than shifting the focus of the hiring process from the candidate’s credentials to her looks, on display through her attire?

Stilettos in the Modern Workplace: A Paradox?

Thorstein Veblen notes that a woman wears undeniably uncomfortable clothes so as to announce to society that she “does not and cannot habitually engage in useful work.” The uncomfortable nature of women’s dress, according to Veblen, demonstrates both their economic dependence on man and their husband’s “ability to pay.” So, it seems to me, a modern woman's wearing such attire to the workplace is a paradox. The modern working woman wants to announce her independence and equal status. But how can she stand for the notion that women are equal to men in the workplace when her attire says the opposite?

Though women, such as myself, no longer consider themselves dependent on a man, they have perhaps become dependent on something else entirely - a sense of empowerment attained through attire such as skirts and high heels. Granted, many women can perform to the best of their abilities and be just as efficient as their male counterparts even while donning a skirt and heels. However, I believe the way a woman is perceived and treated by her male colleagues is just as important as her job performance. Even if a woman can be wholly productive in the workplace while sporting stilettos, there is still the possibility that her success is attributed to the stilettos rather than her abilities. Therein lies the cost of a seemingly innocent fashion choice: a woman's true accomplishments are robbed from her when attributed only to the way she dresses.

One Small Step…

Recognizing that my business attire may have a bearing on my image as a female professional, I will make an effort to change my fashion choices. Demeaning remarks regarding my attire or inappropriate attention given to what I wear during an interview are a few of the unfortunate realities I face as a female professional. Rather than accept these realities as just one of the “indignities” I must endure as a woman in the workplace, I choose to change my choices for business attire. Today, I will start by wearing only pants to the workplace. Someday, with difficulty no doubt, I will abandon my high heels. In this way, I hope to stand confidently on my own, independent of attention gained through my clothes. “Naked,” but for my intellect.

  • The vibrancy of the comment your draft inspired shows the importance of the subject, but I think it is important to point out what is not discussed. Both your original anecdote and much of the commentary (all of it by women) begins from the proposition that the original comment about your clothing was "because" of your sex. I think that's almost certainly wrong. You dressed yourself knowing you were going to do something important, and you wore the clothes that would do what you wanted on that occasion, which was to help you command an audience. The person who saw you about to begin the work, with your "game face" on in all respects, commented on your clothes as making your manner, because that's what human beings do, which is why we care about costume in the first place. Men as well as women. Monday last I had an appointment elsewhere on an occasion important to a client. I carefully chose the suit, shirt and tie I was wearing for that appointment; as you know I do not usually wear business clothes in the law school. Three people whom I met during the few minutes I was in the law school asked me what I was doing and assured me that my appearance would help me, or that I looked powerful. I was glad to hear it--I spent a great deal of time choosing the fabric for that suit, and a great deal of money having it made into what it is--but I didn't agonize over whether they thought the suit was more important than the lawyer inside it.

  • So I think one aspect of this conversation--which regards the clothes as signalling unreliable messages in the construction of gender identity--is overstressed. Not entirely mistaken, obviously, because of the strong response you get from female readers and the complete absence of male interest in the question. But the difference is not in how the clothes are perceived at such moments, but that men (with the unconscious benefit of male sex privilege) don't even notice what is said to them. It doesn't raise identity uncertainty. Men think compliments on their appearance are just what they deserve; women consider such compliments "attention," with all the mixture of plus and minus that might imply. Neither is exactly right.

  • Which brings us to what is not said in your essay, which is that in American society dress is used primarily to mark class. And since class is not a discussable subject in America, most people don't really understand why they wear what they wear. What you wear as press secretary to a Senate candidate depends on which party, and which component of which party, your candidate comes from: the boots that would work for a Democrat in Beverly Hills are rather different from the boots that would work for a Republican in Omaha, right? What to wear to a law firm interview represents, again, the intricate semiotics of class distinction. Like the nisbah of an Arabic speaker, the identification becomes more specific as one gets nearer one's home. To a union electrician, one could say simply that anyone going to a law firm interview should dress like a lawyer, and he would know exactly what that means. The electrician could tell the right clothing for a male law student interviewee from the right clothing for the firm's chief IT guy, too. He would also be able to do the same thing for the women's clothing, and--in contemporary America--he wouldn't make a distinction between costumes built around skirts from costumes built around pants. He would say that a pretty young woman ought to wear skirts instead of pants, probably, but he wouldn't be dogmatic about it.

  • Ask a lawyer, on the other hand, and she'd want to know which firm. Sure, she might well say that at some places a pantsuit goes over better than it does at others. But she'd also tell you that the color could make more difference than the cut. That what gets worn at Hunton & Williams isn't necessarily what gets worn at Cravath, and that what works among self-made real-estate partners at a five-partner shop in midtown wouldn't be in the closet of a third-generation bond lawyer below fourteenth street. And if she really knows anything about male clothing (which is far less likely than women like to think) she'd tell you that the only two things that really matter about what a boy law student wears to an interview are the collar of his shirt and the choice of his tie, both of which--unless he's either grown up in the ruling class or is most unusual--he's going to get wrong.


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r16 - 13 Apr 2015 - 02:12:44 - EbenMoglen
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