Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Legal News / You are what you wear

You are what you wear

Fashion_story_From juries to judges, people in the courtroom don’t just listen to what you say, they also pick up on the unspoken messages conveyed by your appearance.

“I don’t think people determine guilt or innocence on that, but it is a piece of the puzzle,” said Janine Geske, distinguished professor at Marquette Law School and a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. “Psychology does come into play.”

Clothing isn’t necessarily the dominant topic of conversation after a trial, she said, but in meeting with jurors after cases the subject definitely has come up. And, often, that surprises attorneys.

“I think, as a lawyer, people think about dressing professionally, not about what shoes they’re wearing or what outfit they have on,” Geske said. “But it’s something they should think about. Jurors are going to be thinking about it. I’ve had jurors talk about women prosecutors’ shoes and sometimes drawing conclusions.”

Part of it might be that jurors are forced into such passive roles that they can’t help but become observers, Geske reasoned. But part simply might be human nature, which means jurors aren’t the only ones watching.


“It goes to judgment; what you wear, what the clothes are saying, it all reflects,” said Kat Griffin, a former litigator and editor-in-chief of Corporette, a fashion and lifestyle blog for female lawyers, bankers and other professionals. “It is very regrettable. But, I think, the fact of the matter is we live in a world where this is something that has to be discussed.”

Griffin told the story of a blind judge her former colleagues practiced before. He insisted that his clerk let him know whether a woman came into court wearing a pantsuit, instead of a skirt, she said. For him, any woman not wearing a skirt was immediately subject to scrutiny.

Others look to the lawyer for insight into the client. A public defender wearing an expensive designer such as Balenciaga, Griffin said, might raise some eyebrows.

Geske agreed.

“If you know your defendant is not a drug dealer [but] you’ve got someone who looks like a high-powered lawyer with an expensive briefcase and an expensive suit, you’re going to send a mixed message to the jury,” she said.

“Even if they don’t articulate that, they’re going to be thinking, ‘How can he afford that lawyer?’”

The best bet, said Josephine Benkers, an attorney for 13 years and a partner with Quarles & Brady LLP in Madison, is to “try to avoid anything distracting.”

Benkers described her personal style as “fairly simple,” but she said she strategically tones it down for the courtroom: conservative colors, traditional suits and minimal accessories.

It’s the same advice Johonna Duckworth, an image consultant and owner of Creative Images in Milwaukee, gives her clients.

“A lot of people think that clothes don’t matter, but they absolutely do matter,” she said. “They communicate your level of competence.”

Often, that can start with color.

“Certainly, we know navy blues and blacks command authority and symbolize knowledge,” Duckworth said. “White communicates simplicity; a lot of times it can convey truth. But when we get to colors like browns and warmer, earthy colors, they’re also safe colors. Those have been known to project honesty, integrity, loyalty. They don’t project a whole lot of riskiness.”

Geske noted that mediators are advised not to wear red, as it’s a color that is not calming or soothing.

As a litigator, however, a dash of red might be just the way to suggest dominance or confidence.

Still, Duckworth said, it’s best to layer those brighter colors under a navy blue or black suit.

And the finer points matter, as well. Duckworth said attorneys, men and women, need to be conscious of the seemingly little things, such as the condition of your hands.

“Fingernail biting communicates nervousness, uneasiness, a lot of stress,” Duckworth said.

Women’s nails shouldn’t be distractingly long. Polish is OK, but no designs. If you opt for paint, Duckworth advised, “absolutely, positively, no chip. It should be either all the way on or all the way off.”

Men don’t get a pass either.

“You don’t need a manicure, but make sure you are grooming,” Duckworth said. “And that doesn’t just include shaving and haircuts. It includes grooming of the hands, making sure your nails are clean and they are a length that is not only masculine but just appropriate for court, whatever your lifestyle is outside of that.”

Another big one for men: the hem of your pants.

“That’s a very important detail,” Duckworth said. “Pants that are too long would definitely be seen as sloppiness, someone who doesn’t pay attention to details. While someone who is [wearing pants that are too short] I would say they’re frugal; someone who has outgrown their suit and isn’t making the time to invest in a new one … .”

The same is true for shirts and jackets, she said. Whether too big or too small, either can communicate disorganization, Duckworth said.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do,” she said, “but certainly it communicates.”

For women, she advised, cleavage should not show, although a button or two on top can be open. Skirts should hit the knee, she said, and not just when you’re standing for closing arguments.

“Make sure when you’re sitting, your skirt at least comes to your knees,” Duckworth advised. “That is really the test.”

As for accessories, a set of pearls, even a good set of fake ones, should be considered part of the uniform for women. And Griffin suggested a watch for both genders.

“It conveys that you are attentive to time,” she said, “even in today’s day and age when we all look at our phones.”

Whatever you choose, Griffin said, “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s your statement?’ If you’re diamond bedazzled, it might be, ‘I’m the crazy cat lady,” and that might not be a statement you want to make. But if you’re saying, ‘I’m bold and taking a risk with color,’ that’s an OK statement.”

One never can be too careful, Geske said.

“It all plays a role,” she said. “We’ll just never know, I think, how much.”

Fashion sense

Dress conservatively.

It’s standard advice for attorneys, but what does it really mean? And how do you figure it out?

If you’re lucky, you’ve got a co-worker to talk you out of that ascot or gently encourage you to wear pantyhose. For the rest of us, there’s good old trial and error, but that’s not exactly a gamble you want to take in court.

To help, we’ve asked Kat Griffin, a former litigator and editor-in-chief of the blog Corporette, and Johonna Duckworth, an image consultant and owner of Creative Images in Milwaukee, to help us put together this list of do’s and don’ts to advise you what (not) to wear.

In general

– Build a wardrobe, don’t just go shopping or buy based on emotion.

– Buy quality, classic pieces.

– Invest in a suit. Ladies, your suits should have three pieces: slacks, skirt and jacket.

– Remember, classic has an expiration date. If a piece is older than five years, even if it’s classic, it’s probably time to replace it. (Yes, even black pants. Changing styles and cuts can date you.)

– Dress according to your calendar. If you’ve got multiple appointments, including an appearance in court, consider layers, such as a blazer paired with a cardigan or crewneck sweater and shirt.

– Look behind you. Check a mirror to make sure the view of you walking out of the room looks as pulled together as when you’re walking in.


– If a style of shoe didn’t exist five years ago, don’t wear it. (We’re looking at you shootie! Who heard of a boot-shoe hybrid, let alone an open-toed one, before 2009?)

– Dress for the weather. Men, that means investing in overshoes, and bring a plastic bag to stow them in. Women, wear boots outside and carry heels or flats for in court.


– Gentlemen, wear a belt and invest in a nice watch.

– Ladies, stick to simple gold and silver pieces. Skip the cocktail rings.

– For women, pearls make a nice statement. You don’t have to get a great $3,000 set. There are a lot of good options for less than $100.

– Invest in a good bag. Messenger bags work well for men, while durable tote with clean lines work well for women. Use them to carry documents, personal effects or extra shoes. Plus, it can interject a little personality into your wardrobe.


– A good tailor is an inexpensive way to customize your clothing. So, hem your pants, take in those jackets, even consider tweaking the collar and sleeves on your shirts.

– Pants should hit your shoes about mid-heel.

– Gentleman, we never should be able to see your socks when you’re walking.

– Ladies, skirts should hit your knee when you’re seated.

— Jessica Stephen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *