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(Over) Dressed For Success?

Vivia Chen

June 9, 2010

Hermes Tan Gold Birkin 35 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?

Comments

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The only people that are going to care are the women (let us face it). We are judged for our looks and how we dress every day. This is not a class or professional thing but rather a way of life. She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. I say take the bag to work. I once brought a knock-off Chanel bag to work--and one attorney who hated me--became my best friend that day because she thought it was real.

Never heard of a Birkin but also do not wear anything that costs remotely that much (and I do use a professional shopper to help me maintain a professional and polished presentation). An associated should not wear or carry something that expensive because it sends lots of messages that she probably does not intend. Get real and carry a Coach bag - no controversy there unless you are a vegan.

I'd strongly disagree with the article's conflation of dressing well and dressing expensively. You're not necessarily better dressed than your colleagues for having paid more money than they have. It's perfectly possible to buy poor quality clothes at high prices or to fail to tailor and fit even good clothes in a way that makes you well dressed. And while I have no particular beef with the Birkin, I've never really bought into the theory that you "dress" in a handbag. Most of the time nobody sees the thing.

This isn't about being well-dressed, it's about being seen to spend a lot of money. An issue worth exploring in its own right--and the drama playing out in the comments shows the spread of responses on that--but it's not a question of dress.

The Jasons of the world crack me up. It is never enough for them. Doesn't matter if chick-girl here donated $10 million to clean water efforts in India and the the 10,000 families whose life she saved pitched in $1 each to buy her the bag. Doesn't matter if she has personally cured 12 obscure diseases. Doesn't matter... so long as one wee bit soul, somewhere, sometime, somehow, is less well off than chick-girl-with bag, HOW DARE SHE buy such a luxury. Listen Jason... you know those light caramel machiados with soy no-foam, extra shot, you buy each day? And all that music you download to your iPhone7Gxs-Platinum with the Unobtanium magnet ear-pods.... you know what? Those are luxuries... how dare YOU indulge while others suffer? That was easy. You see what I did there? Now tell me how my examples don't apply to you, and thereby miss the entire point.

Gender matters, and is probably the first question you should consider.

If the partners are heterosexual men, the discussion is over. We have no idea. The most fashion-aware male law partner at a successful firm *might* be able to discern that your bag came from somewhere more upscale than Macy's.

If your superiors are female...I suppose it depends on how successful the firm is? If they're struggling, you might come off like you plan to blow by them. Otherwise, I say use the bag.

As someone who has put in time at a big firm, I would carry the bag. To the extent it matters (it probably won't) the partners will think you are rich and have relatives that might be good for some business some day.

But don't even think about implying it is a knockoff. There are probably people doing IP law at the firm, who will be deeply offended.

Consider the client's viewpoint, as well. I once had an associate who drove a Porsche Cayenne (her daddy bought it for her as a law school graduation present). I remember feeling embarrassed when the valet brought it out for her at a conference. As the associate jumped into her Porsche, client gave me that look that said, "Hm, I'll be sure to scrutinize your next billing statement a wee bit more carefully."

Take the bag to work. If the partners are driven by envy rather than the performance of an associate, find another firm.

Birkins are for losers. I have a couple of really ugly purse/bags that I will sell for $50,000.00. Be the first in your office to get one. They say "I have enough money to waste $50,000 of this piece of crap" right on the side so even the clueless will know that you are a high roller.

Boy, that Birkin is one ugly handbag. I can just picture the folks at Hermes laughing their butts off at the fools who would spend $10,000 for it because they think it gives them status.

I would have to think very hard about hiring someone who came in sporting a Birkin. It says quite a lot about the woman carrying it and, in my opinion, nothing particularly good.

I would say that anyone who would spend 10K on a purse as ugly as that would be a poor employee because they are A. unintelligent sheep who do something because their fashion "betters" dictate them to and 2. because they have no concept of the value of money.

Only a person with a deep insecurity complex or mental retardation would buy such a bag, even if they were a billionaire.

I would say that anyone who would spend 10K on a purse as ugly as that would be a poor employee because they are A. unintelligent sheep who do something because their fashion "betters" dictate them to and 2. because they have no concept of the value of money.

Only a person with a deep insecurity complex or mental retardation would buy such a bag, even if they were a billionaire.

Carry a big purse not a brief case to work is unprofessional. Bring an exquisite little purse and a $50,000 brief case.

I love my Birkin bag...it's been used for everything and looks as if it has been through hell and back. It has. Two generations later, it's not the fashion statement that it might have been in years gone by, but it is a workhorse of a bag. I dare to say that my fashion conscious daughter wouldn't be caught dead with this bag. lol

Seriously??? You are seriously making the argument that a junior associate carrying an accessory that is worth one quarter of her annual salary is not dressed inappropriately? And that it will not be noticed, with follow-on comments about her judgement?

Look, if Miss Moneybag really wants to carry that purse, she should wait until she gets a large bonus, so that it will be seen as a reward for exceptional performance. In the meantime, a subdued Coach will do nicely. A professional woman's appearance should be a coordinated whole, with no single item remarkable for extraordinary appearance or expense, whether beauty or ugliness.

Or to put it another way: no single item of our girl's wardrobe should cost more than the average of that same item worn by those one to two levels above her. One doesn't dress for the job one ultimately wants, but as if one already had the next promotion. In this case, I highly doubt that the average female senior associates -- even in Singapore -- are carrying five-figure handbags, and as our girl is not yet a star, she should not use as her standard whatever the stars have hanging from their shoulders.

Finally, for the sake of all that's holy, do not let Miss Moneybags claim its a knock-off she picked up from a street stall -- that's the kiss of death in such circles.

I think the m/f comment split is hilarious. The women are actually discussing the matter at hand. One guy is trying to be sensitive and the rest of the guys are wiseasses.

Better to show up at the office with a Birkin than a merkin.

Anyone who would plunk down 10G for a bag like THAT should be fired on the spot! That bag looks like the huge frumpy handbags sported by working class people in the fashion-conscious-less 1970s. Sporting it to the office betrays zero taste and extreme financial irresponsibility unfit for a position of any accountability.

There are male corollaries to this. I'm a CPA and have heard people say "Don't use an accountant who drives a better car than you do."

When called to jury duty, I wear my best suit, put Mont Blanc pens in my pocket and wear my Rolex. I never get selected.

It also depends on the nature of your practice. If you actually go to court and try cases before regular human beings (namely, jurors), you want to dress professionally, but not ostentatiously. Unless you are a nationally known top dog whom even the jurors have heard about, you don't wear obscenely expensive stuff - ditch the $2,500 suit, the overly fancy jewelry and dress very conservatively in middle-market clothes. Also, unless you're the top dog, leave the Benz or Beamer at home unless they are over 10 years old, and find a nice pickup, Subaru, Chevy or Honda to take to court. If the jurors can't relate to you, they won't listen to you.

Oh please Jason. Is that $9k yours? Did you earn it? No? Well, then who are you to tell someone who did make it how he/she should spend it?

The thought of anyone - I don't care how affluent - spending $9,000 on a purse is offensive to me. There are people in the world who watch their children die of dehydration and other preventable illnesses because they have no clean water to drink! I wonder how much time they spend each day laboring over what kind of message they are sending by what they are wearing or carrying on their arms.

You can definitely overdress for an interview if your perception of the company is wrong and not as elevated as you thought. But, then you probably wouldn't want to work there if you are dressing so much better than everyone else. Once in the door, dressing better is OK, but don't overshine workers/interviewers when looking for the job.

I don't think it's possible to overdress. And I think your work is the only thing that needs to speak for itself. But, personally, if I had a Birkin (which I wouldn't, because I can't imagine spending that much on a bag), I'd have a completely different concern. I'd worry about it being stolen at work, or on the way to or from work. It's for that same reason that I wouldn't wear real jewelry to the office if I had any, other than my wedding rings.

I think that you can and should dress well-- but anything at the far end which distracts from the content of your work or work experience-- It's the same rule as on interviews. A couple of well placed high end accessories are ok.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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