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Neon in the Workplace: Blinding or Beautiful?

Claire Zillman

March 27, 2012


After that wimpy winter, the change of seasons was barely noticeable. So in case you missed it, it's officially spring. That means it’s high time you peel off the opaque stockings, slap on the sunless tanner, and embrace spring fashion. 

For lawyers, doing so always takes some tinkering. Clothes rarely make a seamless transition from the runway to the law firm hallway, and this season’s ride may be especially bumpy. One peek in a J. Crew window will tell you why (and possibly scald your retinas). Neon is back. Think fluorescent pinks, electric blues, lime greens, and canary yellows. Your inner '80s rocker may be rejoicing, but finding a way to mix trendy neon tones with your current closet of neutrals might be less cause for celebration.

These bold hues are intimidating for even non–law office dwellers. Searching online for “how to wear neon” results in a bevy of encouraging tutorials, like this one from Refinery29. But while the suggestion of a tangerine pleated skirt or aqua-on-aqua outfit might be suitable for a Friday night or Sunday afternoon, it might be bit blinding in artificial office lighting among a sea of black and navy and pinstripes.

But have no fear, trendy lawyers. There are, of course, ways to sample from the neon color wheel without becoming a Big Bird look-a-like.

Cue Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham School of Law and director of its Fashion Law Institute. Scafidi says that neon can add an unexpected pop of color in a business wardrobe but is best in brief flashes. She suggests small touches of these bright hues, like “a hot pink zipper on a grey or black clutch, a scattering of fluorescent yellow crystals in a necklace, or an electric blue shoe,” and warns against more than one neon shade per outfit. “Even an attorney in a creative field like entertainment doesn't want to be wearing enough neon to light up Broadway,” she says.

Lawyers advising corporate clients or making court appearances should take an even more conservative approach, she says. For those lawyers, "a taste for lime green can be limited to socks or even just lingerie—after all, there's a psychic glow that comes from being lit from within."

I am all in favor of neon accessories. Who doesn't love a flashy shoe? But should neon in the workplace really be limited to such minor details and embellishments? Is a tasteful hot pink blouse or a chartreuse necktie really too much? 

You tell me. Can you bare the bolder side of your color palette at work, or would any flicker of fluorescence be frowned upon? 

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I noticed neon was back this season when I went shopping for running shoes. They must have created a basic outline, which they then handed to a 3-year-old like a coloring book with a set of highlighter markers for the final design. No, thank you. I go running during the day, and do not require traffic-cop reflectors to avoid being hit by cars.

I wouldn't sweat in neon, much less wear it to work. I like color, but in tasteful tones. Neon is something I associate with teenage rebellion, not elegance or professionalism.

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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.

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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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