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.
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 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 .
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 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.
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.
Are you a drug kingpin? No? Good. Then say goodbye to your white suit while on business.
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)
Read the next post in this series: "Interview-Worthy Dresses."