January 28, 2020 4 minutes to read · 800 words

Clothing Arguments: Attire for the Courtroom

By Brenda Swauger

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You only have one chance to make a first impression. This age-old saying couldn’t be more true in the courtroom, and there are few other places where this adage is more important. Whether your clients are entering the courtroom as defendants or plaintiffs, how they present themselves greatly influences how the jury or judge perceives them, which can influence the overall case and directly impact its outcome—no matter how well you have built you argument.

As a high-end custom clothier and stylist, I advise clients on how to dress for all situations, including legal proceedings in which they may be involved. I start by asking clients about their personal style and how they initially planned to dress for the occasion. Once I understand their preferences and comfort level regarding color and design, we will collectively decide on a clothing strategy that allows them to put their best self forward. There is already enough to worry about when in court. Don’t let your or your client’s appearance be one of them. Presentation is key.

Dressing in today’s world allows for many traditional rules to be broken. Street style and flashy, fashion-forward looks are found almost everywhere you turn, and the rise of business casual and “athleisure” looks have become the norm—even in the workplace. However, courtrooms demand a level of respect, which should be reflected in one’s appearance. It’s important to ensure your clients’ attire rises to the occasion and communicates the appropriate message, regardless of their profession or personal style. As long as you consider your situation and follow several simple guidelines, you and your client will enter the courtroom with confidence in your appearance.

  • Go conservative. When in doubt, choose a traditional or conservative outfit. Shy away from bold patterns and opt for a clean, crisp look. Make sure your clients wear professional footwear and leave their sneakers and sandals at home. Also, never expose too much skin, and keep tattoos and body piercings out of sight, either by covering them and/or removing piercings.
  • Subject matters. If your case is related to a financial matter, advise your client to avoid flashy brands and accessories. Do not overplay high-end clothing and cutting-edge styles, especially an item with a logo. Wearing expensive clothes, jewelry, or accessories could communicate the wrong message and affect the outcome of your case. Conversely, if you are trying to encourage a jury to have empathy for your client, suggest he or she dress in more casual attire, such as a cardigan and floral skirt or khaki pants paired with a blue or white dress shirt and a tie.
  • Location, location, location. Location may be important in real estate, but it can also influence your dress for court. While courts in larger cities may expect a more traditional dress, it may not be the case for those in suburban or rural areas. If attending a court hearing in an urban environment, opt for a solid dark suit, either navy or charcoal, with a white or blue shirt and coordinating tie for men. If court is in the suburbs or rural setting, it’s still recommended to don a jacket or sport coat, but you can also appear appropriately if you opt for dress pants, with a white or blue shirt and tie.
  • Keep (it) calm. Regardless of location or subject matter, ask your client to avoid bright colors, such as red, pink, or purple, and stick to neutrals, such as navy, charcoal, white, and light blue. Bright colors can be offensive to some judges and give an unintended impression. It’s best to keep all accessories to a minimum, including jewelry, scarves, and patterned shoes. Consider small earrings, a simple timepiece, and, if married, only a wedding ring.
  • Fit counts. The clothing you or your clients wear shouldn’t be a factor in the case, and a well-fitting outfit will avoid any distractions. Fit is important, and garments should not be too big, too small, or too form-fitting. If clothing is too tight or too low cut, it can undermine credibility. For women, I recommended skirts or dresses where the hem’s length falls at the knee. Make sure pants are the right length to avoid tripping and/or having to wear extremely high heels to accommodate. For men, no matter if they dress in a suit or separates, the pieces should be tailored to fit.
  • Consider grooming. Tidy grooming is essential to capping off a clean appearance for a positive first impression at court. Consider advising your male clients to get a haircut and trim excess facial hair before making an appearance. Women should avoid big, blown-out hair and overly long extensions.

No matter the reason your clients enter the courtroom, one thing they should not be worried about is whether or not their appearance will negatively impact the outcome of the case. Dressing in a professional and appropriate manner will never broadcast the wrong message to the court.

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Brenda Swauger, owner and founder of BKS Custom Clothiers, is an expert in the fashion industry and has worked with luxury fashion brands such as COACH, Paul Stuart, and Louis Vuitton. She has received her formal training from the Custom Tailors and Designers Association, learning the craft of design, styling, and measuring. She has dressed several Chicago-area luminaries including Craig J. Duchossois, CEO and chairman of The Duchossois Group; Tim Jahnke, CEO and president of Elkay Manufacturing (one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world); Gale Sayers, former Chicago Bears player and NFL Hall of Fame inductee; Jamie Navarro, former pitcher for the Brewers, Cubs, and White Sox; and Steve Rogers, president of Elkay Manufacturing.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 6, January 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.