Court Dress: A Sartorial Brief for Lawyers

Gregory Peck Dies at 87

Law has always been among the most sartorially sophisticated professions. Its practitioners must always be representing not only themselves, but their firms, their clients, and even the dignity of the law itself. These imperatives, along with the generous means that are often a lawyer’s prerogative, have produced generations of well-appointed attorneys who appreciate good clothes and understand their power.

The relaxation of dress codes in even the most traditional law firms may have shifted the paradigm toward less imposing and more comfortable attire, but it hasn’t diminished the importance of presenting a professional impression. This can be difficult to pull off in the more subjective context of a casual workplace, and there’s nothing comfortable about finding oneself inappropriately attired. Alan recalls being stunned when one of the real estate lawyers handling the closing of his Fifth Avenue apartment showed up in khakis and a polo shirt — not because of any stylistic offense per se, but because such casual attire called into question the man’s judgment and authority to oversee such a important transaction.

It’s never a bad thing for a lawyer to be the most formally dressed person in a meeting — the grownup in the room, so to speak. While this once may have meant a dark three-piece suit, today it might mean a subtle sportcoat and well-chosen tie. Sartorial standards may shift, but lawyers benefit from maintaining a relative formality that helps them project the following timelessly essential professional qualities:

Trustworthiness – Whether being appraised by a judge, a jury, a client, or a senior partner, a lawyer’s attire should give an open and honest impression. This translates to well-tailored but simple, sober clothes that don’t attract attention to themselves, but rather serve the wearer by focusing attention on his or her face. The bolder patterns or brighter colors that an entrepreneur or an entertainer might favor with will tend to come across as flashy, distracting, and perhaps even suspicious when worn by counsel.

Thoroughness – Tailored clothing presents many opportunities to demonstrate one’s attention to detail. Nuances like a precise trouser break or a properly knotted necktie are subliminally impressive to even the least sartorially inclined among us; their mastery won’t come across as fussy or fogey, but rather refined and authoritative. A discrete pocket square is a polished touch, (especially in the increasingly common absence of a necktie) but it’s generally well-advised to steer clear of more fastidious or anachronistic details like collar pins and braces — at least until you’re more established in your career.

Gravitas – A lawyer’s attire should respect the seriousness of the law he or she practices, and the magnitude of the stakes for clients. A well-cut solid dark suit, a crisp white or light blue shirt, and an elegant tie is an admittedly formal but entirely appropriately ensemble to wear to what is essentially one of the highest ceremonies in secular society: a court of law. Not quite the white wig required in British courts, but the same idea: symbols of continuity that transcend whims of fashion.

There is certainly a long tradition of lawyers who enjoy deploying the full arsenal of menswear finery — e.g. double-breasted suits, waistcoats, watch chains — to make a statement and perhaps even a personal trademark, but such dandification is generally a prerogative of seniority at most firms, where high-style dressing is underwritten by proven professional records. If you’re not quite there yet, remember that more conservative dressing need not be dull. A restrained sartorial aesthetic can be highly elegant, emphasizing quality of material and perfection of cut over ostentatious flair or detail. Indeed, this was the mantra of the original dandy himself — the early 19th century English arbiter elegantiarum Beau Brummell, credited with creating the modern suit as a masculine rejection of the baroque gorgeousness that had characterized fashionable male dress for centuries. “If John Bull turns around to look at you,” he observed, “you are not well-dressed.”

A more relatable inspiration for lawyers — sartorial and otherwise — is of course To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation. Finch’s rumpled cotton three-piece suits might be better suited to a courtroom in Depression-era Alabama than one in Manhattan today, but their timeless appeal lies in their enobling effect — the way in which simple, unpretentious, yet dignified clothing can serve a man serving the law. Finch’s personal style is hardly mentioned in the story, but no reader or viewer will ever forget it. It’s an object lesson in how good clothes work.

Author:  Andrew Yamato, Alan Flusser Custom

NOTE: Alan Flusser Custom will be exhibiting at the New York State Bar Association’s (NYSBA( Annual Meeting at the New York Hilton Midtown from January 15th through the 17th (2019).

Reposted with Permission from Alan Flusser Custom | https://alanflusser.com 


Alan Flusser – Part 3: Listen Up, Counsel: This One is for You

Photographed by Rose Callahan

As I have shared in two prior posts, I had the privilege of sitting down with the menswear authority, Alan Flusser, in his comfortable office inside his custom tailor shop in Manhattan, to hear his point of view on the status of men’s style. This being a legal blog, the conversation inevitably came around to what a lawyer should wear, and here again, Mr. Flusser was both precise and definite:

“I went to a closing on an apartment, and counsel for the other party showed up in a polo shirt and khakis. I’d never met him before, and I would hardly recommend that you come in looking like that, trying to show you have the know-how and authority to oversee a transaction well north of a million dollars. But that is the lay of the land today.”

“Is that advice for everyone or are you pointing to the legal profession when you say that?” I asked.

“Everybody could benefit from learning some of the fundamentals that go into putting together the basic elements of style in a way that makes the right impression. That is particularly true for a lawyer, who has to explain important things to people in a convincing manner. The kind of clothes he wears and—just as important—the way he wears those clothes can go a long way in terms of helping him present his case to his opponents, to a judge, and, indeed, to his clients. There’s a certain confidence that can be projected by a person who knows how to wear clothes correctly.”

“Are you arguing for tradition?” I asked. “When I was a boy, we were told that, by the time you and I would be sitting here, everyone would be dressed in something like the outfits on the original Star Trek series.

Mr. Flusser smiled. “I worked for Pierre Cardin in the 70s.” That was a name from my sartorial past. I recalled that the three first suits I bought as an adult, while then in college, bore the Pierre Cardin label. They were made in Latin America and had lapels wide enough to cause me to take flight if the winds were right—but such were the times. “Pierre Cardin was one of these very avant-garde designers,” continued Mr. Flusser, “who said that, by the turn of this century, everyone would be wearing jumpsuits to go to the moon. Since then, people have been attempting to uproot, upend or debunk the necessity for wearing a suit, dress shirt and tie, trying to replace that with something else. Look around. As far I see, that that’s been a complete failure.”

Which is to say, it is a lot harder for you to look inconsequential in a suit, dress shirt and necktie even if not entirely spot on, than in a polo shirt and khakis, even if done not half-bad. Just the same, as Mr. Flusser next observed, once you commit to making the effort, you should commit as well to making sure it succeeds: “Whatever you do, the question is, why go to all the trouble to get gussied up in this if it takes no more effort to put on clothing that fits and is correctly proportioned for you?”

I asked if there is a good role model who shows lawyers how to do it just right. That turned out to be another easy question:

“I have been writing about it for decades, but very few men know how to tie a tie and put it up into a collar and have it come out looking as good as it could—that is, the difference between looking powerful or not—or possibly making you look weaker. Where can you learn that? You either have to see it on another man or you have someone in the public eye espousing this kind of dress. If I had a moment to ask any question of former President Barack Obama, I would probably first ask him, ‘How did you learn to wear shirts that have the exact and perfect collar for someone of your size and height and face shape, and how did you learn to tie the necktie to go up into that and to make that presentation as perfect as it has ever been on any president?’ Clearly, somebody taught him that at some point because you don’t usually pick that up as a community organizer.”

In short, to my colleagues at the bar: your legal knowledge, skills and personality may take you far, but pick up Mr. Flusser’s books, see him personally, or hunt down someone else who knows how and is ready to show you the way. That may not carry the day for you in contract negotiations or in a summation before the jury—but it will almost certainly offer you just a bit more of an advantage than you otherwise have had. And no one who seriously wishes to make it in this difficult profession should lightly pass up such an opportunity.

Credit:  Alan Behr

We would like to thank Alan Flusser for his gracious participation in our three-part series on fashion, style and the industry’s influence on today’s design aesthetic. https://alanflusser.com/


Alan Flusser – Part 2: The American Male and His Wardrobe

Photographed by Rose Callahan

I was discussing the history of style with Alan Flusser in his office on East 48th Street in Manhattan, a convivial nook that shares the floor with his showroom and workroom. I turned to a topic about which I knew, from Mr. Flusser’s informative writings, that he had much to say: how it is that the typical American businessman or professional man used to look so natty and how is it that his descendants came to look—rather as they now do.

“First of all,” Mr. Flusser told me, “in between the wars, you had a situation in which a lot of people couldn’t afford clothes. It was the Depression. On the other side of it, there were still a lot of wealthy people. And there was also Hollywood, and in Hollywood at the time, when moviemaking was at its zenith of popularity, you had great male leading actors whose job it was to project Hollywood glamour, not just on screen but in their social lives.”

Anyone so young as to wonder if celebrity worship started with iPhone apps and social media should read a good history of American popular culture to know what Mr. Flusser means. My mother, a spiritual child of the Golden Age of Hollywood, grew up hoping to copy every button and bow on her favorite stars and still sees actors as transcendent personalities. For men, however, as Mr. Flusser went on to note, the catalyst was a “confluence of male sartorial role models,” from British aristocrats, politicians and businessmen to those movie stars. Men were taking an interest in dressing well, in part due to those examples, which were regularly offered in the new media of film, picture magazines and, later, television.

“In Hollywood at the time,” continued Mr. Flusser,” you had about twenty men who individually set their own kind of style” and thereby marked the path for those millions interested in following. He noted in particular Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. “In terms of learning how to dress, there developed between the two world wars the kind of clothing that we wear today, soft clothing that you could move in comfortably—lounge clothing, it was called—not stiff and Victorian.” Indeed, although the modern business suit’s origins can be traced back to nineteenth-century military uniforms, it was the resulting lounge suit of British gentlemen that evolved into the contemporary international business suit. (If you do not believe that, put on a suit of the London cut, turn up the collar and pull the lapels toward each other. You will look just a bit like the Duke of Wellington.)

That is all well and good, but who in the public eye right now would a young man seek to emulate? Attention, Millennials, this one is for you: “I would be hard-pressed to come up with a single person,” said Mr. Flusser, a note of frustration overtaking what had been an assertive tone. He suggested George Clooney, who is not in his first youth, of course, but did not feel comfortable naming anyone else in entertainment.

As I now knew was his method, Mr. Flusser offered history: “In the 1960s, you had the Peacock Revolution. There was a rebellion against ‘the Establishment’ and the more traditional dress that people associated with their parents. From about 1968 until the 1980s, there was a void of good guidance on how men should dress. If you take the generation after that, you get pretty close to where we are today, and you find two complete generations of men who never had the benefit of having any kind of solid information on the elements of stylish dressing. By then, you had had a complete inversion. Instead of style being handed down from above, it bubbled up from below—from the street.” And street wear, as we know, makes its mark by aspirating toward a state of cool—a hard state to reach and an even harder one to maintain.

Where does that leave us now? “It’s a very confusing period of time in terms of trying to learn how to dress and come to terms with what you know about how to present yourself,” concluded Mr. Flusser. True enough, but at least, because of our conversation, I had come to understand why that is so.

Credit:  Alan Behr

See previous post…”Alan Flusser – Part 1: A Question of Balance


Alan Flusser – Part 1: A Question of Balance

“One of the principles that I teach is that clothes should lead the eye of the viewer to the face of the person wearing the clothes. That’s particularly important in the legal profession, where you do a lot of communicating.” Hardly had I started my conversation with Alan Flusser, who is one of the premier custom tailors on this side of the Atlantic, when I was the recipient of such good advice. I had come to Mr. Flusser’s shop, in midtown Manhattan, with a three-button jacket he had made for me so long ago that I had missed a fitting on the morning of 9/11 (for quite obvious reasons). Although it had been worn often, Mr. Flusser and his team had just returned the altered piece to me looking as if it had left the workroom for the first time. Not only had it been recut for my late-blooming athletic physique (I had at long last learned to sit less and to pump more iron), but shorter and now boasting a pinched-in waist, it was also quite au courant. A hidden benefit of quality custom-tailoring is economy: every off-the-rack garment I owned back then has long ago been sent away.

With that good start behind me, I joined Mr. Flusser in the office of his shop.  Mr. Flusser sat in one of his guest chairs, appearing at ease in an open-collared shirt, unbuttoned jacket and casual shoes minus socks. With my notes spread in front of me, I probably looked to him like a defense lawyer trying to impress a trial judge. He continued: “What is closest to the face is the dress shirt collar. You should look at it as a painting and a frame—your head is the painting and you are trying to give it a frame that complements your face but doesn’t distract from it. The criteria for making the decisions about that—the size of your chin and the shape of your head, for example—are not changeable or subject to fashion. So if you discover what kind of dress shirt collar best presents your face, and build on that, what you figure out will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

When I asked what was the most common collar mistake, his answer was immediate: “Most men wear dress shirt collars that are too small for their faces. If you are 5’10” or above, the likelihood is that you will be wearing a dress shirt that does not sit tall enough on your neck. Instead, the dress shirt decorates the bottom half of your neck, and if you add a necktie, it will look like a dead fish hanging around your neck. That has nothing to do with fashion. It only has to do with your own physiology. And it’s not about knowing how much you should pay for something. It costs no more to wear a shirt with a collar that is appropriate for you than not. If you don’t wish to spend a lot of money, but you understand what works for you, it will look just fine. All of this is just about knowledge.”

Feeling my moment of reckoning had come, I noted the obvious: that I have a large head and a wrestler’s neck. My shirt collar was tall enough, it turned out—but that was just the start of the conversation. Before I knew it, Mr. Flusser had unfastened my tie in order to relieve it of the Windsor knot I have been using since I was a first-year associate and retied it with a more rakish four in hand. “Much better,” he said, and then he replaced my machine-finished pocket square with a proper French-made, hand-rolled model. It all came together just so. And that is what style is really about: helping you look your best, not the best of someone seen in a magazine or on a social media page.

Credit: Alan Behr

Alan Flusser maintains his custom atelier at 3 East 48th Street in New York City. He is the author of “Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” and other works about men’s style. (www.alanflusser.com)

See next post…”Alan Flusser – Part 2: The American Male and His Wardrobe