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February 23, 2006



A law-related point that arose when I was clerking is that some judges require their clerks to wear business attire, defined as suits and ties for men, skirt-suits for women. This is a declining practice (we got to wear business casual), but when we discussed it in chambers the two female clerks found it objectionable that any women would be required to wear suits.

If I were a judge, I'd be fine with my clerks wearing business casual in chambers, but I'm still not sure that I get the objection to the skirts-only rule for female clerks. The objection seems to be to a rule that prevents women from wearing something men can wear. But as a formal matter, there's no asymmetry. Men can't wear skirts, women can't wear pants. There may be an objection to any gender-specific sartorial restrictions, but it's not as though women's choices are more restricted than men's choices by the rule. They're both constrained to wear gender-traditional clothing.

The objection also has a functional dimension, though; my female co-clerks said that the rule was unfair because wearing skirts was restrictive and uncomfortable. That's likely true (I wouldn't know), but I'm not sure the rule imposes more burdens on women than men. For one thing, mens' suits require wearing ties, which I've always hated. I find them uncomfortable, plus the symbolism is a little too repressive for my taste ("you're required to tie a noose around your neck as a condition of working here"). Moreover, women have a wider variation of what's permissible in formal work-wear that I've often envied. A co-worker at one organization used to wear roomy silk T-shirts under a suit jacket, which allowed her a lot more comfort in the workplace while still following the (rather strict) dress requirements.

It's all a moot point, though, with most workplaces going to business casual. And if for whatever reason women may prefer to wear pantsuits, that seems fine with me. I've just never quite been able to understand the objection to skirts. Perhaps the answer is that men should object to the requirement that we wear ties (though I don't think most men have the same problem with them that I do).


Great points, JS. Let's also take up the field hockey issue. I doubt the male Olympians in this sport are wearing skirts. I have never understood why this outdated tradition lives on in the US. You might be amused to know that the women's rubgy team at my dear institution has one annual game in formal wear, usually prom dresses.

I am not holding my breath even for the women's figure skating. I see that Althouse complains today that the Russian's unitard, which she claimed to praise, was "not a pretty enough unitard. The lower end of it flared out into mannish pantlegs, losing the leotard effect, and the top was too enclosed." Too enclosed?! Mannish pantlegs?

What progress!


I have often wondered why men don't revolt at the requirement of a tie, as many women have resisted the "skirts only" attire. Skirts are uncomfortable for a whole hosts of reasons, among them, the required stockings, skirts are breezy and therefore less warm, and they restrict one's stride. That said, isn't it possible that women resist the "skirt only" rule also because of the identity it constructs (women as all about legs, crudely speaking, and not about her intellect -- the latter being the reason, I am gathering, she was hired as a law clerk??). And, do men not revolt against the tie because they are comfortable with -- perhaps empowered by -- the identity it constructs: men as all about control and dominance, crudely speaking, as the tie has been artfully described by many as the symbol of the phallus, although its history is much deeper than Freud. Indeed, some historians date the neck tie back to the Romans and through the French revolution as a sign of wealth and power (silk around a man's neck is an indication of status, and the more colorful, the higher the status). So, although surely the necktie is uncomfortable, its discomfort isn't because it is socially disempowering; quite the opposite. The skirt (and especially the skirt only rule) is both.


"[A]lthough surely the necktie is uncomfortable, its discomfort isn't because it is socially disempowering; quite the opposite. The skirt (and especially the skirt only rule) is both."

This seems right. I talked to a female colleague about this and she voiced a similar objection to skirts: that it's objectionable to require that women show their legs to meet a professional standard. Of course, there could be advantages to wearing a skirt: if it looks good, that may give you leverage with your judge/employer/etc. (though not for the reasons you might prefer). But it seems that there should be choice as to whether you want to wear a skirt to leverage those advantages.

Of course, the social meaning of wearing a tie is obviously variable. It's not uniformly thought to be associated with power (I always thought of it as symbolizing submission to disempowering social norms), but I'm certainly in the minority on this one.

Dean C. Rowan

Now's about the time to get out your Judith Butler, folks. The question is probably not so simply put as "Are ties/skirts sexist?" or "Do ties = skirts?" I used to friggin' hate ties--gratuitous, noose-like, overpriced, useless--until the whole much more stupid and hypocritical "business casual" thing came along. At that point, I heartily endorsed tie-wearing, bought lots of really nice ones, and consequently I continue to enjoy one from time to time. But there's no way the evolving semiotics of fashion will ever serve entirely to undermine Catharine MacKinnon's insights into sex and gender dynamics.

Doesn't get it

Sorry, but I don't see anything wrong with imposing attire requirements. There are many eligibility requirements for participating in an official competition. So long as all women are required to wear skirts, I don't see the problem.

Still don't get it

Also, most people hate formal attire, of whatever kind. Skirts are just a kind of formal attire for women. The power dynamics are the same. Ties may be popular amongst the upperclass academics you associate with....


Well I had to wear both a tie and a skirt when I was in school, and though I hated both, I have to say that the skirt was by far the worst. I eventually got used to the tie and pretty much forgot that I was wearing it, whereas I can't say I ever got used to the skirt - I doubt that an hour went by when I wouldn't think about changing out of my skirt and into my comfy jeans (though a pair of black trousers would have been almost as good). The girls were constantly complaining about the skirts only rule, but I don't recall hearing a single word of complaint aoput the tie. Now that I'm an adult, I would certainly refuse to take a job where I was expected to wear a skirt.


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