Suit Colors for the Clueless

This week, we again visit with Leo and his partner Jordan in a typical day at their law practice, as they get ready for court.

“Hey Leo, I really enjoyed your post on Lawyerist last week. I really learned a lot from it.”

I looked up at Jordan as he walked into the office. He was wearing a tan suit, a purple shirt, and a bright yellow tie. We were due to be in court in half an hour. I shook my head in silent disappointment.

“You must be joking, Jordan. You look like a dammed Easter egg.”

“What? I think I look good.”

“Yeah, let me get you a wide brimmed hat, trim it with with some flowers, and you’ll be the finest lady in the Easter parade.”

“Hey, I resemble that comment!”

“Listen, if you want to be taken seriously, you’re going to have to do a bit better than that. I can’t deal with standing next to a lawyer who looks like he should be filled with candy.”

Jordan hung his head and stared at the ground for a few seconds.

“It’s not all bad” I said. “You have an eye for color — you’re just picking the wrong colors for court. Let’s talk about it on our way to the courthouse.”

What Does Color Have to Do with Professional Dress?

Last week, I promised that I’d discuss the two species of the “that guy” genus – Thatguyus Schlubbius and Thatguyus Dandius. But since then, after taking a gander at some attorneys who were “dressed for court”, I decided that I we needed to do everyone a favor and start with the basics of color.

Law doesn’t necessarily have to be stodgy. But if you’re a younger attorney, you’re not necessarily in the best position to draw unwanted attention to yourself.

For now, it may be to your benefit to be boring in court. Save your brightly colored shirts and loud ties for the office. Give it a few years (and maybe a few grey hairs) and then you can dress however you want. But you’re still earning your stripes, and don’t yet have that luxury.

As a general rule, you’re best off following KISS: Keep It Simple & Sedate.

Today we’ll do a general survey of the most common colors of essential menswear items, and which combinations are generally the most appropriate for professional business wear.

Suits

The solemnity of a suit’s color is almost directly proportional to the depth of its shade. Lets examine some of the most common colors of suits, and their varying level of appropriateness for the courtroom.

Black

Black is as dark as you can get, and is most appropriate for funerals and evening events. As GQ’s Style Guy Glenn O’Brian says, “I don’t favor daytime black because I don’t want to be addressed as Father except by my kids.”

For us non-clergy, black often washes out the complexion of its wearer. Moreover, there’s no subtlety — no nuance — to a black suit.  Many defend the black suit from a fashion standpoint, or argue that it’s the most versatile color for suits. Let them wear black suits. You know better.

Charcoal and Navy

Yes, I know these are two different colors, but I’m lumping them together because they should be the suits most prevalent in your courtroom rotation. Both are dark enough to be formal, and versatile enough to be paired with most colors of shirts and ties. The colors themselves complement virtually every complexion, and will rarely cause the wearer to appear washed out. Both charcoal and navy are less severe than black and can be paired with more colors without appearing too overpowering.  No one will bat an eye at a properly fitting navy or charcoal suit.

You can’t go wrong with a solid charcoal or navy .

Brown

There’s an old English saying that cautions “never wear brown in town.” This is a holdover from the days where the gentry would change into browns and tweeds while sporting in the English countryside. While this rule may be somewhat outdated, it’s still somewhat applicable even today. Brown remains a relatively informal color, and is best reserved for the office, rather than court.

Olive

Olive gets a bad rap. Back in the 50s and 60s, it was considered the third suit a man should get, right after navy and charcoal. You don’t see it worn much today, unless the wearer is sporting a suit from the early 90s.

There’s a good reason for this. Olive is a tough color to properly pull off. It doesn’t suit many complexions, and has the potential, if not paired with the right colors of shirt and tie, to make one look drab and dull.

That aside, I like olive. An olive suit, done right with a complementary shirt and tie — can look magnificent. Do it right, and you’ll fit right in all but the most formal situations.

Tan.

Now tha the weather’s starting to warm, you’ll likely see many men who, eager to embrace the summer, wear tan suits. Tan is an excellent summer color — for the office. Tan has a few strikes against it for use in the courtroom, as it’s a lighter shade of the inherently informal brown. I’d caution wearing tan to court until you’ve got a few years under your belt.

White

Are you a drug kingpin? No? Good. Then say goodbye to your white suit while on business.

Seersucker

I know that’s I began this article by cautioning K.I.S.S. Sometimes, one simply must run afoul of the rules.

I am going to break with my own rules for a minute. Remember To Kill a Mockingbird? A sweltering, Alabama summer in the courthouse, and there was Atticus Finch, articulate and posed in a seersucker suit. He looked like an attorney you’d want fighing for you.

Seersucker is an anglicization of the Persian words for “milk & sugar”, a reference to the fabric’s texture. Though it’s quite the attention getter, seersucker has a long enough tradition among professionals to be acceptable courtroom dress in many courthouses; just keep your shirt and tie sedate.

Whats About Shirts?

Step into any menswear store and you’ll likely see more colors than a Crayola crayon big-box. Your first step is to ignore most of them.

If you’re starting out with a professional wardrobe, the easiest mistake to make is to buy fashion colors – like  pink, or brown – or intricately striped shirts. Not only are these colors unprofessional, they make even the simplest suit and tie ensembles difficult to pull off. Court is not a nightclub.

I could devote an entire article to men’s shirts. In fact, I probably will in the future. But for now, I’ll leave you with this pro-tip: stick with solid white, solid blue, or white and blue patterns (stripes or checks).

What About Ties?

Leave your Jerry Garcia and novelty cartoon character ties at home. Or better yet, burn them.

You can never go wrong with regimental stripes, whether british or American style. You’ll find them in classic red and blue, green and blue, blue and gold, black and white, etc. While they’re not the most exciting ties around, they’ll pair with virtually any suit and tie combo,

Another sure bet is solid, dark colors, like burgundy, navy, brown, or hunter green. While they’re completely soporific, you’ll never look a fool in those colors.

If you’re feeling fancy, try pin or polka dots — so long as they’re tastefully scaled, not overwhelmingly large

Finally, unless you’re an investment banker, please avoid those little critter ties.

Uh Oh, You Have a Lot of Rules. I Don’t Even Want to Ask About Shoes …

After all the choices and rules above, this will be pretty easy.

You have two choices: black or brown.

Traditionally, black was considered the proper color for business — and it’s still the more formal of the two colors — but it would be rare to have anyone give you a hard time about a classic brown cap-toe. And this should go without saying, no flip flops.

There you have it, gentlemen. Now, armed with the basics building blocks of color, we can start to assemble a professional wardrobe, and how you can use this newfound understanding of color to avoid getting roped into the “that guy” genus.

Let’s hear your thoughts below. And as always, send hatemail to Leo@Lawyerist.com.

(photo: fabric color samples palette from Shutterstock)

  • Maureen

    I generally agree, with the following caveat: anything goes in Municipal Court. Sure, there are plenty of private attorneys running around in tie-dye ties, pinstriped jackets with khaki pants, tweeds, and double-breasted suits circa 1992. I’m not talking about these guys. They are committing fashion crimes right there in criminal court. But if you want to see sartorial flair, come down to Muni. Suits both light and dark, checked shirts with coordinating ties in all colors of the rainbow, even the occasional custom three-piece with contrasting lining. Our prosecutors, public defenders, and most private counsel look professional but not drab and corporate!

  • http://www.atlbankruptcyhelp.com Will Geer

    Leo,

    Great article! Courtroom attire should not devolve into a sport coat and khakis, which is often what I see in bankruptcy court.

    You may disagree, but I think there should be one rule above-all for shoes: no square toes.

    What do you think about wearing a burgundy dress shoe with a charcoal or navy suit? I often view it as the “third shoe” in a man’s collection.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      Burgundy is an American classic.

  • Dan Durocher

    What are your thoughts on a light gray suit? I noticed it wasn’t a color mentioned in you list.

    • http://FishtownLaw.com Leo Mulvihill, Jr.

      Perhaps I should have discussed it. Light grey’s a classic color, though it’s less versatile and formal than a charcoal.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewsalzwedel Matthew Salzwedel

    Leo,

    Great post. Four comments:

    1. Suits. I agree that the general rule is to avoid black suits. But there is a geographical issue here that’s not addressed in your post. On the East Coast, Philly is one example, lawyers commonly wear black suits. It’s a cultural thing, I think. I also think that black suits are acceptable if you spice them up with a striking tie, white French-cuff shirt, and cuff links. I would avoid brown, olive, tan, and seersucker suits — even in the office.

    2. Shirts. Never, ever wear a dark-green shirt. Light blue is acceptable, but I also would avoid dark-blue shirts. It’s too hard to match a dark-blue shirt with a tie that doesn’t create too much contrast. Think of a dark-blue shirt and red, yellow, or orange tie. That is not pleasing to the eye. I would stick with light-blue, VERY-faint-pink (so that it’s almost indistinguishable from white) and blue-and-white pinstriped shirts.
    3. Shoes. OK, black and brown are fine. But what about cordovan? Cordovan goes great with dark-blue suits, just like brown shoes.

    4. Cuff links? You don’t discuss cuff links. Very few lawyers in Minnesota wear them. They are ubiquitous on the East Coast. I love them. They are a throwback to an earlier time. Again, I think there’s a cultural difference here. Midwesterners think that cuff links are pretentious. That’s not a concern on the East Coast.

  • http://www.BarWrite.com Mary Campbell Gallagher

    Good post. Just make sure those brown shoes are dark brown. Cordovan is also OK. Lace-ups, I presume.

  • http://www.lyonlegal.blogspot.com Vincent

    I just wish I could wear my Vibram FFs to court. They are so comfortable. But trial isn’t about being comfy.