I don't usually write about fashion in the office, because the topic seems too obvious. What's there to discuss when you're talking about dressing for a law firm? Anyway, don't most lawyers--male and female--shop at Brooks Brothers or Paul Stuart?
But apparently some junior associates are venturing beyond those safe harbors, and putting their own mark on corporate fashion. I'm hearing complaints--usually from more senior women--that young female associates in particular seem clueless about looking professional. "They go for cute and girlish, and that undercuts their seriousness," says one partner. "They are way too informal," gripes another.
But here's an interesting, if less common, twist on the issue: What if a young associate dresses better than the partners? That question was obliquely posed on Corporette.com, a fashion blog for professional women. In a recent post, a summer associate at a big firm in Singapore asks whether she should carry her Birkin to work. (For those who are too embarrassed to ask, a Birkin is an Hermes bag that's become an uber-status symbol; the price starts close to $10,000.)
The summer associate describes her dilemma: "I've heard two conflicting opinions: 1. You should dress what you would like to be, i.e., if you want to be a partner one day, dress as such; and 2. Dress appropriate to your level in the firm."
In response, Corporette urges caution:
[O]ur main hesitation towards carrying a Birkin bag at a young age is that it conveys something about you that isn’t necessarily a good thing: you’re rich. Or perhaps your parents are rich, or your fiance. Still: you’re not working for the money.
The consequence, adds Corporette, is that the summer associate will have to prove herself even more: "You might also find that your personality, your wardrobe, your attitude, and everything else about you will be under extra scrutiny as people try to reconcile their first impression of you (rich girl, maybe a materialistic girl) with whatever else your work product says about you."
What wasn't mentioned in the blog is that the scrutiny will likely come from other women, who might feel that this young woman has not paid enough dues to deserve a Birkin. (A corollary is that the male partners don't figure at all in this discussion, because they're probably clueless. Would they know a Birkin from a Nine West purse?)
Still, are the concerns overblown? I think so. While jealousy and competition among women in the office are not uncommon (see "The End of Sisterhood"), women, in my experience, are actually quite respectful toward those who are well-accessorized. From what I've seen, women are far more critical of those who don't dress well than those who are nicely turned out. The comment is usually, "Why is she dressed in rags when she makes so much money?" rather than, "How awful she's wearing that exquisite Armani."
Why are we more forgiving about these luxuries? Maybe it's a pleasure to see someone who looks stylish. Maybe we'd like to think that we're in the same sorority of good taste.
So my advice is to bring out the Birkin, and prop it right on the conference table. And if it seems to be stirring jealousy or resentment, just hint that it's a fake. In New York, at least, that would be completely plausible.
What do you think? Can you be too well-dressed for the job?