How does the legal professions dress code affect women’s progress and legitimacy as a lawyer?  


The gender imbalance in the legal profession has been a constant problem ever since women were accepted in the Bar. Many initiatives like trying to introduce gender quotas are being considered to further the representation of women. However, it seems that even the oldest of indoctrinated views towards women and their sexuality still exists in the form of dress codes. Whilst this may sound slightly absurd further research does suggest that the legal professions dress code and standard beauty standards are affecting women’s progress and legitimacy as lawyers. However, how much of an effect does something as frivolous as a dress code limit the diversity of the legal profession?


The lookist culture currently dominating society has developed a business objective[1] of ethical egoism[2]. It seems business are willing to do anything, including rejecting employees who are not traditionally attractive to increase their clientele and in turn their success. Wiley[3] is quick to blame “commercialism” as the reason behind appearance discrimination. Commercialism is an aggressively protected system in today’s society and is essential for law firms to thrive in this current, arguably, over-saturated profession. This idea is supported by the notion that attractive people earn on average “3-4% more”[4] than their “below average” colleagues. Wu[5] argues that the time and money spent on reaching a level of “attractiveness” reduces the efforts women put into furthering their careers. It is almost as if women are stuck in between two stones, if they edge towards perfecting their careers they may not be attractive enough to be hired but if they edge towards their outer appearance they are stopping themselves from pursuing job opportunities which may require more funds or commitment.


The legal dress code for women is arguably a patriarchal restriction that demonises women for “tempt(ing)…men”[6].  The Chicago Bar Association had stirred much controversy concerning their “What Not to Wear”[7] fashion show where women were slated for their “tramp stamps” [8]. The derogatory manner in which women were addressed reflects the attitudes that have given women a slow start to careers in the legal profession. Rather than focusing on how to help women progress, legal officials are further restricting them to “”skirt suits”, which are more “rewarded”[9] due to their sexual appeal.  It was also unearthed that “Virginia judges” do not like the sight of “cleavage” or “legs displayed in court”. The word “displayed” itself suggests how quickly women are treated as visible aesthetics. The male figures in the legal profession seem to be projecting women as sirens, which evidently devalues their roles and reputations. Kopf concurs this idea by stating that men are both “pigs and prudes” when it comes to imposing dress standards on women.


Many commentators even go as far as to recommending that potential employees remove their “large” “engagement rings”[10] as it would ignite “jealousy” and “rage” amongst female interviewers. By suggesting that women are naturally jealous creatures gives potential employers the impression that women are ‘risky’ associates who will pass judgments based on pettiness and perhaps do anything to sabotage fellow female employees. By labeling women of a competitive nature in this way, suggests that there is an issue regarding how women are viewed when they go against their ‘traditional’ role. This viewpoint is what potentially discourages many employers to limit the number of females they take on board and the supposed rivalrous nature may also dissuade women from applying to major firms because of the rumored “bitchy” nature of higher ranked women. The fact that the visibility of one engagement ring can create such serious hurdles for women seeking a position in the legal profession shows just how frivolous and infuriating these archaic dress standards are.


Male imposed dress standards have left women, as Rhode[11] states, in a “double bind”. If they conform to both dress and beauty standards they, theoretically, become more successful, but are supposedly more inclined to experience jealousy from other females in the legal profession. In fear of being labeled as “vain” and a “narcissistic”[12] from their other colleagues, many women become “homely harpies” who are “ridiculed” for their choice to represent themselves in a way, which is professional but not necessarily “attractive”. It is clear that the physical appearance of women in the legal profession is a deeper concern than initially thought. It shows how archaic beliefs about women and inter-women relationships are exaggerated which essentially affects both the employer and the potential employee.


The dress code for both men and women is understandably stricter when they are present in the Courts. However, Corbett[13] states that “demands and expectations” are “greater” for women. Kopf[14], a US federal judge even went as far as to tell women to not dress like “ignorant sluts”. Such demeaning and misogynistic comments have devalued the position of women in the legal system; simply because of the way they dress. In addition, if women are addressed as “sluts” or singled out for their “inappropriate” dress it can demean their authority as representatives for their client. This would not only damage their own, personal careers but it could also affect the reputation of the firm they represent. This could make employers more cautious towards future female employees.

Most of the above arguments concern immodesty and the idea that women are sexual objects. However, the controversy surrounding the Hijab is seen as another way of preventing women progressing in the legal system. Whilst the traditional item intends to avoid “distracting” men it is stirring up controversy regarding the balance between the freedom of expression and neutrality of the legal system. Views are split between Ghadban[15], who believes allowing the headscarf in the courtroom “constitutes a step by step erosion of the state” and Finkel[16] who states that the neutrality obligation “does not apply to lawyers”.


Germany’s “patchwork of rules”[17] regarding the permittance of the headscarf amounts to “demeaning compromises” that had burdened the same Muslim female barrister on two separate incidents. Both incidences had allowed the woman to wear a head covering that “no longer had a religious appearance”. To an outside body, it could be argued that the “peasant scarf”[18] or “type of cap”[19] the lawyer had re-styled held the same sentiment and that it was pointless for the judges to create such a protest against it. Obama[20] parallels with this idea, stating in a speech in Cairo that the “western world” must avoid “impeding Muslim citizens from practicing…as they see fit.” However, President Sarkosy[21] claims wearing clothing like the burqa and the hijab is a problem regarding the “dignity of a woman.” The irony with Sarkosy’s claims is that he identifies that the “subservience” of the religious dress as the true “problem”, a problem that does not belong in a court of justice.  Here a paradox emerges, whilst the “problem” of the hijab is seen negatively amongst the German courts the similar, if not, identical, “problem” of male imposed dress standards is promoted in the courts of law across the world.


Kolat’s concern with the controversy of the hijab in German courts is that it essentially “amounts to an occupation ban”[22]. Not only does this reduce the likelihood of women comfortably working in the legal system, it also has a backlash for ethnic minorities. A 2011 Berlin case[23] in which a colleague refused to even be in the same room as a headscarf wearing defence lawyer shows just how easily social influences and, in this instance, racial hatred, can not only embarrass but prevent female lawyers from effectively doing their jobs. Mahajan[24] states that beauty standards tend to reflect “dominant groups” so typically, a woman in a hijab is, according to Mahajan’s thesis, less attractive than the typical “white” woman. This itself leaves many Muslim women to earn less than “3-4%” due to them not being as “attractive” thus not as successful. This statistic alone can disinterest female ethnic minorities in to joining the legal profession and giving it the diversity it truly needs. This lack of interest shows that traditional beauty standards have indirectly affected women progressing and even beginning their legal careers, which has the potential to further deepen the gender imbalance we are currently trying to omit.


Zaretsky is correct in identifying that “clothes do not make”… a “lawyer”[25]. However the problem of the female dress code is still a controversial matter in the legal profession. Whilst addressing these controversies may not be a very pressing matter regarding the problems facing women working in law, there seem to be many indirect consequences from preserving both beauty and dress standards that are disadvantaging many women from progressing with their careers in the legal system. “Dominant groups” are represented as the more attractive thus, theoretically, more successful lawyers, a dogma that disadvantages the many ethnic women trying to pursue and further their legal careers. In addition it seems conformists to these beauty standards are supposedly subjected to jealousy from fellow colleagues in an already competitive field. However, this idea of “jealousy” is an archaic description of women that has been fashioned by the media and arguably, a fear of women in powerful positions, and in reality many women will never come across this problem. It seems that it is simply the imprinted idea that women are jealous of more “attractive” colleagues and thus will be more unpleasant towards them that is swaying many away from starting a career in the legal system. In conclusion the supposedly ‘innocent’ dress codes of female lawyers is disinteresting women from joining the legal profession by creating an amalgamation of fears and stereotypes that will effectively drive women away from dismantling the gender imbalance we are faced with today.

Sania Nissar


[2] F J cavico and others, ‘Appearance discrimination in employment: Legal and ethical implications of “lookism” and “lookphobia”’ [2012] 32(1) Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 83

[3] D Wiley, ‘Beauty And The Beast: Physical Appearance Discrimination In American Criminal Trials’ [1995] 27(1) St Mary’s L,J 193

[4] Stranger , ‘ Attractive People Are Simply More Successful ‘ ( <> accessed 21 August 2015

[5] E Y Wu, ‘Cross cultural patriarchal demands on women’s dress-appearance ‘ [2011] 33(1) Women’s RTS L Rep 169

[6] Foxrothschildcom, ‘The Fashion Lawyer’s Guide to Work Attire | Fashion Law Blog’ (Fashion Law Blog, 14 April 2010) <> accessed 21 August 2015

[7] Hill Abovethelawcom, ” (Above the Law,) <> accessed 25 August 2015

[8] Professor Collins John Marshall Law school – Hill Abovethelawcom, ” (Above the Law,) <> accessed 25 August 2015

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[11] Foxrothschildcom, ‘The Fashion Lawyer’s Guide to Work Attire | Fashion Law Blog’ (Fashion Law Blog, 14 April 2010)

[12] Rhode, D.L. (2009), “The injustice of appearance”, Stanford Law Review, 61(1) 1033

[13] Corbett, W.R. (2007), “The ugly truth about appearance discrimination and the beauty of our employment discrimination law”, Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy, 14(1), pp. 153

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[17] Wagner Spiegel online, hamburg, germany, ” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, ) <> accessed 27 August 2015

[18] Wagner Spiegel online, hamburg, germany, ” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, ) <> accessed 27 August 2015

[19] Wagner Spiegel online, hamburg, germany, ” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, ) <> accessed 27 August 2015

[20] E Y Wu, ‘Cross cultural patriarchal demands on women’s dress-appearance ‘ [2011] 33(1) Women’s RTS L Rep 169

[21] E Y Wu, ‘Cross cultural patriarchal demands on women’s dress-appearance ‘ [2011] 33(1) Women’s RTS L Rep 169

[22] Wagner Spiegel online, hamburg, germany, ” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, ) <> accessed 27 August 2015

[23] Wagner Spiegel online, hamburg, germany, ” (SPIEGEL ONLINE, ) <> accessed 27 August 2015

[24] Mahajan, R. (2007), “The naked truth: social media discrimination, employment, and the law”, Asian-American Law Journal 14(1) 165

[25] Zaretsky Abovethelawcom, ‘Judges Want Women Lawyers To ‘Stop Showing Off’ Their ‘Distracting’ Cleavage, Legs In Court’ (Above the Law, 20 February 2015) <> accessed 30 August 2015