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Adieu Power Suit. Hello Jumper-Dress?

Vivia Chen

September 22, 2011

Jumper 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?


Other posts on fashion: (Over)Dressed for Success?Swimming Pool, High Heels, Ladies Who Wedge, Fashionistas on the Leash, and Little Toe Peep.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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Ditto Karen's question -- where do I find THIS VERY outfit!!??

I love them! I hate it when women are afraid of feminine things because they think they may make them appear weaker then their male counterparts. Maybe I am in idealist but I'd like to think that if enough women wore feminine/girly clothing and carried it with a good strong assertive personality, eventually that "respect from men = dress like a man" idea will go away. It insults me that we have to dress like men to get that respect but men don't ever have to do the reverse. I will wear my four inch heels and you will listen to me!

here's hoping.

Who made the jumper in the picture? I think it is adorable and would wear it in a second.

If guys have an advantage, its because we face stricter rules. In one job, I was told I had to wear a tie, but the women were not. Why shouldn't women have to wear a tie, even if only a bowtie, but guys have to?

Fashion can be a very loaded topic for women in professions like law. When I first started practicing law in the 1980's we were (implicitly at least) not permitted to wear pants to work. Definitely during the "dot.com" era, many women (and men) dressed so carelessly as to look wrinkled and dowdy. I guess I have concluded that almost no one wants their lawyer to look too poor or too prosperous--this applies to men and women alike. But where does this leave us as we gaze into the closet in the early am??? Men appear to have an advantage: there is usually a quasi-uniform for court, meetings, "casual days" and other likely settings one encounters for work. Other men are likely to tease them if somehow they step over some invisible line. Women have no such luck: if we wear make-up and heels, we can be subject to suspicion that we are "using our feminine wiles". If we dress very severely, other negative assumptions may be made. Most likely, even if we seek advice, people will be afraid to give it to us....

In the end I think there is now much more room for individuality than ever before: picture Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton--two different takes on style adopted by two powerful current role models. Some people no doubt criticise each of them, but they have each discovered a style that they feel comfortable in that does not appear frivolous or forbidding to most.

The real challenge--and we all make mistakes--is to find our own best style(s)....

It is best to dress so that we look our best and inspire confidence in ourselves-- self confidence usually is infectious. We will feel best if what we are wearing brings out our best self. We will challenge our chance of feeling confident if what we put on makes us feel we stand out to the point that we (or others) are uncomfortable. Where one works or is attending meetings also influences the choices for a given day or trip. We are wise to take into account (though not necessarily follow to the letter!) the (oft-unwritten) rules for court, the office, the not-for-profit world, the halls of an investment bank, etc.... We can also consider where we are on the planet. If we are in NY, LA, DC, Dallas, Paris, London, Rio, Tokyo or Shanghai, this also should enter the mix. In the end of the day no matter what choice we make, some people will like it and others will not. We cannot control that. A "power suit" on a person who is not confident in herself will not overcome that internal state. A jumper on someone who respects herself and has confidence in herself may work--unless the context clearly dictates more formal attire.

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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: VChen@alm.com

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