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Sleeveless Dresses Are Unprofessional, but Cleavage is Okay

The Careerist

July 14, 2017


Want a break from all the messy news about Donald Trump, Jr. and Russiagate? Let's cut to some other topics that are roiling America: Is it acceptable for women to go sleeveless and bare their toes in a professional setting? And what about cleavage in the workplace?

Before I get to cleavage, can we at least agree that a female lawyer baring her arms is no longer scandalous?

Indeed, at some firms, the sleeveless dress seems to be a summer uniform. Several weeks ago, I attended Debevoise & Plimpton's annual women's cocktail party at Rockefeller Center and it seemed like every other women there had on a jaunty sheath dresses. (And may I just say that they looked fetching and toned—just as they did at last year's party?)

But as stylish as those Debevoise gals are, they wouldn't pass the decency test in certain parts of Capitol Hill.

According to CBS News, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recently laid down the law on what's acceptable attire: Men must wear suit jacket and ties. For women, it's more of a list of no-nos: No sleeveless tops, sleeveless dresses, open-toe shoes and sneakers. 

Ryan reminded House members to "periodically rededicate themselves to the core principles of proper parliamentary practice," adding that "members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House however brief their appearance on the floor may be."

Such lofty words. And already, female reporters are getting in trouble for showing up sleeveless. CBS reports that one sleeveless female reporter tried to abide by the dress code by ripping paper from her notebook and stuffing "them into her dress's shoulder openings to create sleeves." It was a valiant try, but she got kicked out anyway. 

The result is that some Congresswomen are up in arms (forgive the pun!) about the House dress code.The Hill reports that Republican Representative Martha McSally of Arizona publicly defied the code by announcing on the House floor: “I want to point out I’m standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes."

You, go McSally!

I don't know whether Speaker Ryan is squeamish about women showing some skin or hopelessly fashion-backwards (Hello, doesn't he know that even women at the stuffiest Wall Street firms now go sleeveless?), but I think he should flip through some fashion catalogs and get hip with the current corporate style.

Of course, I assumed that  women lawyers would take my side about Ryan's silly rule, but I was wrong. A female litigator at a big New York firm told me this: "If men have to wear suits and ties, women should wear the equivalent." Though she says she would go sleeveless in the office, she adds, "I would never slip off my jacket in court, nor should a man." As for shoes, she's also quite conservative, adding that she once worked for a firm that prohibited open-toed shoes in the summer, and that she abides by that rule now for court appearances.

I understand her caution about not offending the judge or jury, but I still don't get why going sleeveless or showing a few toes in court or Congress is considered inappropriate. If the dress is tailored and the shoes are understated, how is that diminishing a woman's credibility? I mean, are we that hung up about women's arms and toes? 
I guess the answer is yes. It seems people get easily rattled by any hint of women's sexuality. 
Which brings us to cleavage. Here's the paradox: Women who reveal more cleavage are perceived as better bosses and being more powerful—particularly to their female colleagues. The University of Wisconsin study (published in the Journal of Social Psychology), reports Daily Mail, surprised the researchers, who had expected that women managers who wore less revealing clothing would get more respect. In fact, female "bosses who buttoned up were perceived as less powerful and mature—undermining their influence on staff." 
The takeaway from these recent developments? Women who want to be taken seriously at work should wear a suit or jacket, conservative pumps but flash some cleavage—particularly if they are speaking before a female judge or a predominantly female audience.
Got that, girls?


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About The Careerist

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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