Massachusetts divorce lawyer Josey Lyne Payne provides tips, advice and resources to assist parties in selecting proper dress and attire for their court hearing.
When the court sends out a Notice letting a party know the date and requirements of a scheduled hearing that they must appear at, often, right across the middle of the document in bold letters and ***surrounded by asterisks*** is the phrase: “proper dress required”. What does constitutes “proper dress” for a court hearing? Like so many things in life, it is sometimes easiest to identify “proper dress” by noting what it is not.
That said, what constitutes “proper dress” depends on several factors. It could depend on the representing attorney’s perspective and opinion, the type of hearing a party has been summoned to, and a person’s job and work schedule. While there really is no absolute right answer, there is definitely a wrong way to dress at court, which we will explore below.
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Believe it or not, here in Massachusetts, the state actually actually publishes gender-specific guidelines for proper court room attire, at least with respect to criminal hearings. According to the state, parties should “think of the courtroom as a formal environment. Dress as you would when going for an important job interview or to church.” Specifically, parties should adhere to the following dress code:
Men: wear shoes with socks; long pants (on pants with belt loops, wear a belt); collared shirt (tucked in) preferably with a tie, with or without a jacket.
Women: wear shoes; a dress, skirt (preferably no more than two inches above the knee) or long pants; a blouse, sweater or casual dress shirt.
Further, the Commonwealth explicitly suggests that you not wear:
- halter or tube top
- see-through top
- flip flops
- clothing that exposes your midriff or underwear
- ripped or torn jeans
- baggy pants that fall below your hips
- clothing with an emblem or wording that promotes illegal or inappropriate activity
- clothing that depicts or promotes violence, sex acts, illegal drug use or profanity
Massachusetts is not alone. Various other states, cities and jurisdictions have published similar guidelines. For example, the city of Houma, Louisiana goes the extra mile in its guidelines, including requirements for women such as “dresses or skirts must be no more than 2” above the knee” where “a modestly dressed person does not expose any part of the breast, midriff, backside, or undergarments”; prohibiting men from wearing “cut off shorts … muscle shirts or tank tops”; and requiring that “all nose, lip, or facial jewelry must be removed before entering the court”. The Law Library of Congress and Wall Street Journal have even chimed in on proper courtroom dress. A comprehensive list of state court dress guidelines can be found here.
The fashion industry also has opinions about proper courtroom attire. For example, Real Men’s Style suggests:
The general rule is to dress conservatively. Depending on why you are summoned to court, a solid charcoal or navy suit with a white shirt and coordinating tie will pass any judge’s standards.
Find yourself in a rural area attending traffic court – then consider a sport jacket with slacks and slip-ons with no tie. A men’s navy blazer and coordinating trousers is also acceptable, and shows the lawyers and judges present that you are mature enough to take their court seriously.
If you are being represented by an attorney, then listen to what he or she has to suggest and work with them to ensure you dress appropriately, especially if attending court outside the United States. Dressing down to seem innocent or dressing up to disassociate yourself from negativity could contribute to what the judge or jury think about you.
If you have a large number of tattoos consider strongly covering them with long sleeve clothing, even if they are military related. The judge will see your military service on your presented record – you can’t assume the jury will be able to see what they are from 20 feet away.
More fashion tips for “dressing for success in the courtroom” can be found here.
When asked, I tell my clients to dress as if they are going to a job interview for an administrative office position. Most hearings are formal and a party should respect that by dressing properly. That said, there may be times when a party is on their way to or from work and do not have time to change their clothing. In that case, it’s a good idea for a party to let the attorney know that their attire is due to their work schedule – often times the attorney will explain this to the judge and mitigate any potential risk of the judge thinking that a party is not demonstrating respect for the court.
Above All, Dress Respectfully – You want to let the judge know the minute he or she sees you that you take this situation seriously. Don’t just dress as if you’re going to church or synagogue. Dress as if you’re going to your MOTHER’s church or synagogue. Wear clothes that are modest, clean and which fit you well. Clothes don’t have to be new but they should demonstrate that you understand that this is a serious occasion.
Make no mistake, there is improper dress when it comes to appearing in court. In fact, it may be easier to understand what is considered proper dress by explaining what is not proper, or is improper. I counsel my clients that court is not a club! Do not dress like you are on your way to a party or a bar! For my female clients I counsel to avoid wearing stiletto heels, excessive make-up, short skirts and plunging necklines. For my male clients, if possible try to avoid wearing jeans, excessive jewelry and athletic gear:
- Court is not a sporting event! That said, a Tom Brady jersey probably isn’t the best choice for a pretrial conference (even during the playoffs!). Yoga and sweat pants, it’s safe to say, are always a no-no for court. If a party is wearing a tee shirt, try to ensure that the shirt doesn’t make statements or advertise anything vulgar or offensive.
- Court is not a fashion show! There is no need to parade before the court and the audience an ensemble ready for the runway. Personal style is authentic and that is important, but if authentic can easily be construed as eccentric, it’s probably at this time that a party should practice a less is more attitude.
- Court is not a slumber party! Under no circumstances (except in emergencies – i.e. domestic violence emergency hearings) should a party wear pajamas to court. Imagine the message that is likely being conveyed to that court and to the judge – it’s definitely not a message that a party wants to send.
The common sense advice I give to my clients is to dress comfortably but conservatively. Make sure your appearance is clean and considerate. Avoid flashy and/or provocative attire and accessories. The goal should be to represent clearly that you respect the court and respect yourself. In fact, the more “conventional” you appear, the better.
About the Author: Josey Lyne Payne is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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