What Do I Wear to Court?
If you're my client and we are preparing for a hearing, you're probably going to hear me say, "Please dress in a manner that respects the dignity of the court."
Why? Simply put, I live in fear of a client showing up looking like an episode of "What Not to Wear: Divorce Litigant Edition." The really bad part of this is that you can't tell in advance which clients won't know how to dress. I've been burned before, you guys, and I mean burned BADLY. That's why I say this to *every* client, even those I think would never dream of dressing inappropriately.
Also, very important: failure to adhere to the court dress code can mean you’re not allowed in the courtroom for your case. That can result in you losing your case by default. Shelby County Circuit Court’s dress code is instructive:
“Appropriate attire is mandatory for any appearance in court, whether as a participant in a case, a witness, or an observer. Appropriate attire not only helps maintain decorum but shows respect for our laws and courts.
As a general rule, think of the courtroom as a formal environment. Dress as you would when going for an important job interview. You will be barred from the courtroom if you violate the court dress code. Regardless of how you personally feel about the dress code, please obey the rules.
Men: wear shoes with socks; long pants (on pants with belt loops, wear a belt); shirt (tucked in) with or without a jacket
Women: wear shoes; a dress, skirt or long pants; a blouse, sweater or casual dress shirt (if your top is sleeveless, wear a jacket or sweater)
You will NOT be allowed to enter the courtroom wearing the following inappropriate clothing (this may result in default of your civil case):
Hats, baseball caps, curlers
Halter, tube top, spaghetti straps, or low-cut top
T-shirt or muscle shirt
Clothing that exposes your midriff or underwear
Ripped or torn jeans
Baggy pants that fall below your waist
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
How you're dressed won't win the case for you, and it usually won't lose it either (exception: please don't wear t-shirts with drug-related messages to child custody hearings - yes, really!)...but what you're wearing reflects on you and subtly influences the judge's opinion of you. If you're a sloppy dresser, maybe you're a sloppy parent, too, or maybe you just don't take this whole court thing seriously.
A general rule of thumb is to dress like you're getting ready to attend a church service with your grandma. You want the judge to pay attention to what you're saying, not what you're wearing. Someone once told me that if a judge ever mentions what you're wearing, even if it's a compliment, you've already weakened your case. I think that's wise advice. Leave the fashion statements for more appropriate venues.
The following is a set of guidelines. It is not a dress code, but merely what I suggest to my clients to prevent their appearance from detracting from the importance of what they're asking the court to do for them.
Suggested Attire - Think Conservative
Yes: belted khakis, dress pants, suits, dress shirts, ties, closed-toed dress shoes, conservative-colored socks
Proceed with caution: polo shirts, short sleeves of any kind, jewelry of any kind (other than wedding ring), bright colors of any kind (other than dress shirt), non-conventional hairstyles (both on your head and in your facial hair), pants without a belt, boots or "cowboy-like" attire
No: visible tattoos (if avoidable), shorts, jeans, t-shirts, clothing with holes, hats or baseball caps, sandals, open toed shoes, tank tops, visible shoulders, clothing with sayings or logos that could potentially offend anybody, brands that could potentially offend anybody, chains, spikes, any leather other than shoes or belt, and hair colors that don't even mimic something that could naturally grow out of someone's head (blue, pink, green, neon yellow, etc.)
Yes: dresses (no shorter than one inch above knee), dress pants, suits, dress blouses, skirts (no shorter than one inch above knee), closed-toed dress shoes (flats or heels <2 inches) , blazers, conservative-colored pantyhose or socks, wedding ring, one pair of conservative earrings, a conservative necklace such as pearls or a single pendant
Proceed with caution: jewelry (other than that mentioned above), bright colors of any kind (other than a blouse), non-conventional hairstyles (particularly non-natural colors such as maroon), any attempt at a "fashion statement"
No: exposed shoulders (wear a jacket or cardigan, or wear a different outfit), visible tattoos (if avoidable), shorts, jeans, t-shirts, clothing with holes, hats or baseball caps, sandals, open toed shoes, tank tops, clothing with sayings or logos that could potentially offend anybody, brands that could potentially offend anybody, chains, spikes, any leather other than shoes or belt, high heels (>2 inches), boots, fishnets, low-cut shirts, short skirts (shorter than 1 inch above the knee), any pants shorter than the ankle, attention-grabbing socks or pantyhose, and hair colors that don't even mimic something that could naturally grow out of someone's head (blue, pink, green, neon yellow, etc.)
Do these guidelines cramp some people's style? Sure, but I'd rather offend your sense of style than fail to advise you about the impression you might unwittingly be making. And look, I'm no fashion plate either, but I try to respect the importance of what goes on in court when I'm choosing what to wear.