As a new summer associate, you must have heard many a horror story about your predecessors, including tales of fashion disasters. For example, do you remember the boozy Milbank SA who supposedly showed up to events wearing an Olympic jumpsuit? How about the girl who wanted to march around her firm with a $9,000 Birkin bag? As this year’s summers descend upon Biglaw firms across the country, we thought that we might be able to offer you some assistance to prevent you from committing comparable crimes of fashion.
To accomplish this feat, we’ve teamed up with none other than Anna Akbari, the “thinking person’s stylist,” to help you make it through the summer. You don’t want to wind up as a bullet point on Weil Gotshal’s “unacceptable” list….
In case you’re not familiar with Anna Akbari, she’s a professor at New York University and the founder of Closet Catharsis, a fashion and image consulting company that takes a holistic approach to individual empowerment and identity construction through personal styling and image management. (You can see her full bio at the end of this post.) This woman knows a thing or two about fashion.
When we spoke with Professor Akbari, the conversation was a little heavy on women’s fashion — sorry guys, but ladies just have a lot more to deal with when it comes to dressing for work in a professional setting. While most men are able to slip into a suit and head out into the world looking dapper as can be, women have to worry about their hair, their makeup, their Spanx, their heel height, their bra, their accessories, and most importantly, the social mores of their office. After all, as we know from the allegations in some recent sex discrimination cases, it’s a mad, mad, Mad Men’s world out there.
Here are Professor Akbari’s tips and tricks on how to dress fashionably — and appropriately — as a summer associate this year. Much of her assessment was based on questions that we received from our loyal readers. And unlike the 80s-inspired fashion advice from Duke Law, these helpful style hints might actually be applicable in 2012.
We’ve divided this into four categories: Suits and Separates, Shoes, Grooming, and How to Stand Out. We hope that you’ve already been following most of these “fashion do’s.”
Suits and Separates
- Skirt suit or no skirt suit? If you’re going to wear a suit, a skirt suit registers better than a pant suit. In male-dominated fields like law, skirts and dresses are particularly rewarded, as they are more appealing to men. In interview situations in particular, women should always wear a skirt or dress, as it is heavily favored over pants by interviewers (many of whom are men).
- Collared shirt or collarless shirt? As a general rule, work to create balance in your outfits. If you’re wearing pants, opt for something more feminine on top (that means a collarless blouse or sweater). If you’re wearing a more flowing skirt on the bottom, a collared shirt is fine, but consider belting it to make it more feminine. And if you must wear a traditional oxford shirt, be sure it is extremely well tailored and fitted (and consider rolling the sleeves, adding a necklace, and slightly popping the collar). I almost always favor silk blouses over collared oxfords (if the blouses are sheer, be sure to wear a camisole underneath).
- Can women wear blazers instead of cardigans? Blazers are great — especially with skirts. With pants, I prefer a cardigan (it’s softer and adds more feminine lines).
- Is it appropriate to do separates (e.g., a black skirt with a colorful jacket) in front of a judge? Every judge is different. I’ve heard many different answers to this question, so the best bet is to either (a) know how conservative the judge is in advance, and then dress accordingly, or (b) opt for the safe (albeit boring) outfit in front of the judge. Court is the place where you can afford to take the fewest liberties. Items like patterned hosiery, or fishnets, or anything too loud and colorful are not good options in this instance. Think conservative and structured, as opposed to flowy and feminine.
- And for the men, what color suit should they wear? Black, navy, small pin stripe, or grey. Avoid brown or olive green — it looks dated.
- How high is too high for heels? For a law firm, anything over 3.5 inches is too high (if there’s a small platform (1 inch or less), 4 inches is the limit).
- Is there some unity on open-toe — omg, peep-toe! — shoes? A good rule of thumb is to follow the lead of the most senior woman at the firm. If/when she wears open-toe shoes, you can, too.
- What about flats? Avoid flats, except in emergencies. They do nothing for your stature or outfit, and they are some of the least powerful footwear you can wear.
- What kind of shoe is most appropriate for men? Avoid super-pointy or square-toed shoes. Opt for a slightly rounded toe. Black or saddle brown are best.
Now, on to Grooming and How to Stand Out….