Spotted at a recent awards luncheon at the Yale Club in New York: A bespectacled lawyer in her early thirties wearing a gray jumper dress, paired with a crisp white shirt, cinched at the waist with a thin black belt. And no jacket.
Neat and trim (and so comfy-looking), it was the anti–power suit. Totally unintimidating.
Call it the retro-librarian look. Indeed, you could easily imagine this lawyer helping Don Draper find a book at his suburban public library (assuming Draper ever checks out books). Anyway, I thought the jumper dress was rather charming. I admit, though, I have a soft spot for jumpers. (I still have the red wool jumper I wore when I was five years old.)
But most women lawyers I polled didn't share my enthusiasm for the return of the jumper--certainly not at the office. Many expressed horror that a professional who was representing her firm would wear an outfit associated with fourth-graders at an Upper East Side private school.
One former Cravath, Swaine & Moore lawyer called jumpers "infantilizing." Another lawyer in California asked: "Is this a Japanese fashion trend--where grown women are suppose to fulfill men's school girl fantasies?"
I thought they were unduly harsh, if not over the top. It was a simple little jumper, really.
But their comments point to an issue that women always seem to wrestle with: Must they look severe and authoritative to be taken seriously?
The conventional (and dominant) wisdom is still yes. "When I go into a meeting, I want them to know I'm in charge," says a female partner at a big New York firm, who makes a point of wearing a suit or jacket whenever she meets with clients. "I need to have something that makes me sit up straight and gives me authority." So for her, something like the jumper is out, "unless it's a quiet Friday afternoon, and there are no clients around."
But there are rumblings that the power suit might not be working its magic--if it ever did. "I've never felt powerful in a power suit, but dowdy instead," says another Am Law 100 woman partner, who now favors dresses.
A Fortune 100 lawyer says she's also ready to try something new. After being criticized once too often for being overbearing by her managers, she wonders if her suits are adding to her "harsh" aura. "Better to look vulnerable from time to time is what I am hearing," she says with a note of resignation.
But is it too much of a jump from power suits to jumpers? Are we ready for something that demure and girlish?
Get The Careerist in your morning e-mail. Sign up today--see box on upper right corner.
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected]