Lawyers and law professors select our professional outfits each day, often experiencing a mix of consternation and gratification. The dread springs from our failures: to know what constitutes the “right look;” to be able to achieve that “right look;” to anticipate what the day will bring; to have prepared by doing the laundry or other tasks. The joy resides in self-expression; we fashion ourselves as works of art, even within the constraints of professional attire.
It could have been different. We could have sacrificed the satisfaction of self-expression for the complacency of conformity; we could wear robes. Judges—at least when they are on the bench—are relieved from the obligation of selecting their attire as they are denied their individuality. But the history and current controversies of robes, for judges and others, is not so simple. Professional dress in classrooms and court rooms shares the common ancestry of academic and legal robes, both of which are related to the dress of religious clerics. By the Tudor era, various regulations attended to the specific requirements of various ceremonial robes, while more generally graduate students and barristers were essentially equated with gentlemen and allowed to dress accordingly. Fashions changed: black replaced more colorful garments during the mourning for monarchs; wigs substituted for hoods as head coverings. Yet the main purposes are hierarchal: a person’s individuality is subsumed by a costume that symbolized respect for the profession and the dignity of it.
It can sometimes seem to be a tempting solution to alleviate the discriminations, angst, and even cost of dressing professionally—especially for those whose appearance is gendered female or nonbinary—to argue for the adoption of robes in the legal and teaching professions. But, even if this were possible, it is not a tenable solution. Section I of this Article considers the cult of the judicial robe, examining judicial views on the metonymy of judges and their attire, as well as First Amendment and ethical issues regarding when and how judges can wear their robes. Part II shifts to lawyers in the courtroom, especially— but not only—women attorneys, and analyzes cases challenging judges who imposed dress codes on attorneys. Part III considers the possibility of dress in the courtroom as “disruptive” to “decorum” with an emphasis on our clients and others who appear in the courtroom but who can too often be forgotten. This section begins by discussing the historical precedent of William Penn, then the Chicago Eight trial, and then more recent controversies regarding the courtroom attire and expressions of spectators. Part IV returns to the issue of professional dress for teachers, who like attorneys once wore robes, and then interrogates the mandate of the graduation robe. The robe, like any other article of attire, can be deployed in an oppressive manner as well as a liberatory one.