I am a Miss Manners fan. So much so that I often read her books to no particular purpose—for sheer enjoyment, not because I am seeking answers to a particular question. I like to think I already know the answers; I always agree, after all, with everything she says. But maybe that’s just because she’s incredibly persuasive, and I’m reinventing my own reality as I read.
In any event, in the way of the truly wise, Miss Manners has a way of opining about matters I didn’t even know I was seeking wisdom about. The other night, as I was thumbing through her A Citizen’s Guide to Civility, I found this compelling exegesis:
Symbolic rules of etiquette are totally arbitrary, which is why people often assume they can be violated with impunity. This is a mistake. Everybody scrutinizes such things as clothing, nomenclature and gesture for symbolic content all the time . . . .
Following the conventions of the society is taken as a measure of respect for it. No one, not even those who are most vehement in claiming to have sartorial freedom from symbolism, would hire a trial lawyer who wore pajamas (which would serve the practical function of covering the body as well as a suit) to court, or submit to an operation by a brain surgeon who wore a Dracula sweatshirt in his consulting room. Don’t even think about flouting symbolic dress conventions if you want a career in the law, the military, diplomacy, the church or athletics. All of these professions have particularly strict etiquette rules, and compliance is taken to symbolize adherence to the particular values that these professions require: fairness, obedience, respect, piety or valor.
Judith Martin, A Citizen’s Guide to Civility 35-36 (Three Rivers Press, 1996). Now, how did Miss Manners know that Early Interview Week was all but upon us? What better time for discussing appropriate lawyer attire?
Now, there are those who may dispute the appropriateness of my weighing in on this question. After all, consider my milieu. Academics, even those at professional schools, are not typically fashion-forward, often clad in a manner that is in fact just one step above pajamas. And more than one student over the years has suggested that I am failing to carry out some portion of my work responsibilities as exhibited by my marked lack of success in bringing one faculty member up to snuff. What do you want from me? I was a coconspirator in the forced-donation to the 2008 Student Funded Fellowship auction of the poor man’s 1980s-era teal and fuchsia ski jacket (rumor has it that the winning bidders—to the tune of $1,000, if I recall correctly—later immolated their purchase in a ceremony on the Quad). I may have failed, but I went down swinging.
Anticipating the potential skepticism, though, I decided to outsource. I have surveyed various people in a position of unalloyed authority: lawyers in all parts of the country who have been both the givers and receivers of many, many interviews. The passion my question evoked was considerable, suggesting that Miss Manners is truly onto something. One’s fashion faux pas are, it would seem, not simply being elided over by a gentle and forgiving lawyerly audience. They have noticed, and they were almost alarmingly eager to weigh in.
Now, to be honest, I stacked the deck. I only asked people who I know get themselves pretty agitated about this topic. The fact of the matter is, the bar is not incredibly high here. You need to look presentable. You can ignore vast swaths of the amazingly strongly worded advice below and be perfectly safe in your presentation. But where’s the fun in reading that version of advice? That is not the Miss Manners way. (Along those lines, many of my advisors went out of their way to say that they didn’t think people should be denied a job just because they dressed “wrong”; people should be hired based on brains and talents. I suspect that Miss Manners would strongly disapprove of this soft-hearted, nay, cavalier attitude.)
Mind you, dealing with people who have strong feelings on fashion can get super-fraught. Divisions run deep. I, for example, admire men who wear wingtips, but one of my advisors thinks they are too casual. That, people, is crazy talk. Likewise, I can think of no better shirt for a man wearing a suit than a white button-down long-sleeve oxford shirt , but again, this advisor demurred in favor of a straight collar, once more claiming that the former is “too casual.” Guess what? He and I are enemies now. (Speaking in the third person about himself, this advisor sent me to this website, and then “rested his case.” Whatever.)
For the record, all of my advisors made clear that this advice relates solely to an interview setting (as well as to, say, U.S. Supreme Court arguments), not to everyday attire at work. Once you get the job, you may find that implementation of the rules may very well be quite lax, if not entirely nonexistent. But when you’re in the position of importuning, signaling through strict adherence that you have mastered the rules is a worthy undertaking. And even if you’re interviewing in a laidback office, dressing formally is a clear gesture of respect that will not be taken amiss.
I have here provided just the advice that everyone could agree upon. And don’t be annoyed with me because it’s so bossy and opinionated. I’m just the messenger. Well—okay. I also loved the message. So fine, go ahead and be annoyed with me.
- No matter what, have one nice suit for interviews. This does not need to be an expensive suit, but it should not look cheap. One advisor said, “Think J.Crew or Brooks Brothers as your baseline.” Those sources may very well seem shockingly expensive on a student budget—hell, they kind of alarm me —but it is certainly the case that many similar suits can be obtained for much lower prices. And while I no longer recall how much I spent on my first interview suit (although I remember being a little terrified and appalled by the price), I also know that I wore it for 12 years. Amortized over time, I’m sure it was a quite good deal.
- This could be the most important piece of advice: Take your suit to the tailor (preferably not a dry cleaner who happens to do alterations, but an actual tailor). This may add to the cost, but it makes all the difference in whether you look like a million bucks or like a kid playing dress up in the parent’s clothes. Getting a tailor to fix you up also helps to ensure that you’ll feel confident and comfortable in the suit, and that is absolutely key to how you present on the non-superficial level.
- For men, the interview suit should be one of two colors: gray (a medium gray or a charcoal) or navy. A subtle pinstripe in either color would work, but avoid the 1920s gangster look. Women are generally allotted more flexibility in terms of color, but navy, grey, and black comprise the most unassailably correct list. (While opinions differ, many people seem quite sure that a black suit is not appropriate office attire for men.)
- For women’s suits, everyone who opined said that either pants or a skirt is fine. (Never both at the same time.) But in the interest of full disclosure, they then also universally went on to repeat some horror story they’d heard about a conservative elderly judge yelling at a women in pants—so clearly, there is some lingering concern. If you’re wearing a skirt, length should be around the knee; remember that it will rise up an inch or two when you sit down. (The judge I clerked for had an awesome story from when he was a trial judge about 110,000 years ago. A female litigant came into court in a pantsuit, which at the time just blew his mind; he told her lawyer that she could not wear pants in court, and granted a recess to remedy the wardrobe malfunction. When she came back, she was wearing what he took to be a shockingly short dress—until he realized it was simply the suit jacket, and she had just eschewed the pants. He learned a vivid, never-forgotten lesson about bossing around women in matters of dress.)
- Men must wear long sleeves; period. The cuffs should not be ragged. The color can run the full gamut from white to light blue—and just to be clear, that full gamut consists of two colors. Long sleeves are safe for women, but women get to wear patterns if they like, and aren’t limited to cotton; the patterned silk shirt that would raise eyebrows on a man is just fine on a woman.
- Men must wear black dress shoes; women may also, alternatively, wear navy shoes with a navy suit. (Don’t let the freedom make you go crazy.) For men, “dress shoes” means Oxford or wingtip; the shoes must tie. You cannot wear loafers (they’re called “loafers” for a reason) or square-toed, rubber-soled dress-casual hybrids. For women, “dress shoes” means a classic pump (from a flat heel to as high as three inches, but make sure you can walk easily without wobbling). No open toes; no sling backs. Whatever the color or style, make sure the shoes are shined.
- Match your belt (which should be leather) and shoe color (and preferably any hardware in your watch with the belt buckle). (Ed. note: this is the piece of advice that led me to conclude that being impeccably dressed may require someone to be on the obsessive-compulsive-disorder spectrum.)
- Men must match socks to the color of the suit. This is not the time for your festive argyles. Women must do the same for a pantsuit, or, if they’re wearing a skirt, don skin-colored sheer pantyhose—not actual bare skin, mind you, consistent with the counsel of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy’s mother. This is not the time for the fishnet or the opaque colors.
- Don’t wear much cologne or perfume. Scratch that; don’t wear any. These interview rooms can be very, very small, and people have very definite tastes about smells. (There is a somewhat quirky individual who works here at the law school who will, if he detects some artificial scent during a meeting, simply stand up and leave the room with nary an explanation; this is unlikely to occur in even the most hardcore interview, but wow, just imagine if it did.)
- Don’t wear much jewelry. A classic watch (as opposed to, say, a Swatch), a wedding ring, earrings—all appropriate. One gauge for whether you’re wearing too much is that if you rattle when you walk, you’re wearing too much.
- For men, the necktie needs to coordinate with the colors of the suit and the shirt; burgundy works well with the suits and shirts previously deemed acceptable, but blue, black, green, or even yellow/gold could all work. Conservative ties--solid or subtle patterns or stripes--are safest. My single favorite tip from this entire undertaking is the following: “Don’t wear the free, electric blue ‘sperm’ tie that Absolut Vodka handed out for Father’s Day one year. I went to a wedding that same year and the rabbi conducting the ceremony wore that tie. We still talk about it to this day. And not in a good way.” The tie should be pulled tight.
- Let’s talk about hair, even though that is outside the technical ambit of “attire.” If you’re a man, you need to shave unless your beard is already fully grown and neatly trimmed/groomed; no scruff. For women, if your hair is long, you should pull it back, in order to avoid the temptation of playing with it. For men, if your hair is long—well, never mind. I can tell, before I even get started, that I’m going to launch into full-on mom-mode if I keep talking about hair.
The overarching point is this: if you wear the right uniform you won’t be noticed for your clothes; you’ll be noticed for your brains. And that, at the end of the day, is the goal.