Business fabulous // Style Counsel

How a serious love of fashion can be taken seriously at work

By Emma Williamson

On Friday October 4th, 2013


At first blush, fashion seems at odds with law. We’re supposed to be staid and uniform, with our navy suits and polished footwear. But those of us who are climbing the ranks in colourful dresses are proof that you can take calculated risks — or so we think. Can you be fashionable and be taken seriously? My off-the-record discussions with Bay Street lawyers yielded a classic lawyer response: it depends.

One (stylishly dressed) female partner argued that “being fashionable shows something about your personality, that you care about your appearance and are creative.” These are qualities that many clients gravitate to, consciously or not. But a (traditionally dressed) male partner disagreed: “The younger generation thinks that to be authentic, you cannot conform. But you shouldn’t feel like you are losing your identity by conforming your dress.” He’s identified why I don’t like wearing navy suits: I don’t feel like myself. But does that really matter? As client service providers, we’re offering a service and selling an image, not creating a venue for self-expression.

Gender identity plays a role in the fashion debate too. A good lawyer friend of mine wears conservative, boring pantsuits (her words, not mine) with plain shirts. As she puts it: “If I don’t dress too femininely, then I worry less about whether people take me seriously.” To her point, one male partner tells me of an associate who, while extremely bright and capable, came across as overly sexy; he found himself avoiding putting her in front of clients.

I get that — but can you go too far in the other direction? One partner bluntly said: “Dressing like a guy won’t get you anywhere. You should dress like a woman.” Indeed, some studies show that women who dress feminine — to a degree — are taken more seriously, perhaps since they are doing what’s expected of them. And might I remind you, ladies: it doesn’t matter what you wear, men will always notice that you’re female.

So here’s my view: First, it depends on your workplace. Some celebrate creativity in dress, others don’t. Next, ask yourself whether it matters. For many of us, dressing fashionably is important because it makes us feel more comfortable and confident. Taking fashion risks can be worth it. Case in point: I have a green silk blazer that I absolutely adore. The first time I wore it, not one but two partners asked me if I’d won the Masters. No joke. I laughed and continued to sport it — proudly. I can’t stop loving that jacket! But I’m no longer a junior associate: I’ve proven myself at work and I think I’ve earned the right to push the fashion envelope.

Like it or not, we send a message through our clothes. You’ll always be safe in a suit and dress shirt. But no one will give you brownie points for maintaining the status quo. (“That Jennifer — she’s such a go-getter in those navy pantsuits.”) Even a small dash of personality through fashion can go a long way to helping you stand out. It’s all about making a choice. I know what my decision is — what’s yours?

Bow tie blues
Why are these old-school accessories so controversial in law?

“Carlton Banks ruined the bow tie for everyone and it hasn’t recovered since,” says Michael Nguyen, owner of Garrison Bespoke, a Toronto menswear boutique that creates custom-made suits for many Bay Street lawyers. He believes bow ties have “nerdy weasel” connotations, making them too showy and pretentious for junior associates to wear to work.

So when can you ever wear a bow tie? Besides formal occasions like the Advocates’
Society End of Term Dinner where wearing a bow tie with a tux is expected, firm social events like the annual holiday party could also be an acceptable time to sport one. Nguyen suggests wearing a patterned one in a hue that isn’t too bright or pastel with a suit or a sport jacket-pant combo. “Never wear it with a sweater or vest unless you want to be mistaken as a lawyer’s boyfriend who works in ‘the arts,’” he warns. “And always wear one you’ve tied yourself.”

Photos: Jacket, Dominik Pabis/iStockphoto; Bow Ties, Bruce Laregina