Finding Room For Fashion In The Courtroom

Tricia Elam once worked in a small Washington, DC law firm — where she learned, to her dismay, that proper attire meant plain suits and flat shoes. But she discovered a way to combine her passions for justice and fashion. She shares her vision with host Michel Martin. Elam is profiled in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, in recent years banks have been making fat profits from overdraft fees, which has really annoyed customers. There are lawmakers and now consumer watchdogs who are asking whether these fees are the result of poor choices by customers or banks gaming the system. We'll talk about this in our Money Coach conversation, and that's coming up.

But first, we want to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. And our next conversation will probably be of particular interest to those of you who have a soft spot for fashion, particularly high fashion.

But perhaps you work in a conservative workplace where your animal print pumps and your peek-a-boo lace is frowned upon. That's Tricia Elam's story. She is the daughter of a judge who went on to practice law herself, but was disappointed to find that dressing the part meant boring colors, plain suits, flat shoes.

But somehow she is finding a way to combine her love of justice and her sense of style. Tricia Elam wrote about her experience in this week's Washington Post magazine and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

TRICIA ELAM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, I have to say, you look fabulous.

ELAM: You look fabulous as well. Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Well, what do you have on?

ELAM: I have on, actually, a black suit that's kind of conservative, but it has a few little sparkles running through it.

MARTIN: Very Greta Garbo, I think. Very...

ELAM: I think.

MARTIN: ...classic. When did you first realize that your love of fashion and your love of the law were in conflict?

ELAM: Well, the thing is, I always loved fashion and I always loved writing, but I couldn't see a path for a career, and my dad, as you mentioned, had been a judge. My uncle was an attorney, so when I got out of college - or in my last year of college - I thought, well, let me just do law school. And I actually enjoyed law school, but once I got out into the real world, I found myself feeling constricted and restricted.

And my first job with a law firm, the attorney said you can't wear pants to court - because I had a pants suit on that I thought was a lovely outfit for going to court and they were like, no, absolutely not, you can't do that.

And there were more and more restrictions. You can't have these kind of earrings. You can't have these kind of shoes. And it was very difficult for me and so I moved to a legal services organization that I thought would be a little bit more free, but I think I went, actually, a little bit overboard.

MARTIN: What exactly do you mean?

ELAM: Well, I mentioned in the article that I was often influenced by cultural events at the time, and Madonna had a movie that had just come out called "Desperately Seeking Susan" and she wore a lot of lace and a lot of rhinestones and I emulated that. And my boss sat me down and he said, you know, you're a very good attorney, but you don't dress like one. And I realized that if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to reel it in.

MARTIN: Well, you know, but this isn't just you. I just want to mention here that you point out in the piece, as recently as 2008 at a Chicago Bar Association event, female lawyers were admonished to wear suits that are, quote, not too fitted, quote, flat shoes, minimal jewelry, minimal makeup and pantyhose. Why do you think that is?

ELAM: I think that's because mostly men are saying these kinds of things and I think that, because the judges and the courtrooms are still very conservative - and we do have to bear that in mind, so I think it's really important for female attorneys to know who their audience is, because there are times when you just are going to have to follow the rules.

And then there's other times, if you're in an office and you don't have to go to court, you may have a little more leeway, so it really depends on your audience and also what story you're trying to tell.

MARTIN: But one of the points that you make in the piece is that, you know, law is at its essence a service industry, but it really hasn't caught up with the realities of the people that it is serving.

One of the people that you quote in your piece, Guillermo Jimenez - he's an international trade lawyer - one of the points that he says in general is that law is dominated by men and fashion seems frivolous to most, but that the industry is actually twice as large as both sports and entertainment added together.

ELAM: Exactly.

MARTIN: So that would suggest what?

ELAM: That there should be more freedom in terms of dress and that women should be allowed to express themselves this way because that's what we do. But I think it's beginning to happen more and more because, as I said in the piece, when I first went to the fashion law panel last year around this time at Howard and I saw these fabulous women dressed with fabulous clothes and they were attorneys, I thought, whoa, this can happen. And I was really surprised. So I think it is happening more and more in bits and pieces.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Tricia Elam. She's written a piece for this week's Washington Post magazine. She's talking about whether fashion and law can mix.

Talk a little bit more about fashion law, if you would. I think some people might be surprised there is such a thing and that we're not just making that up.

ELAM: Right. There is such a thing and it's actually been around for a while and maybe it wasn't called that because it's mostly copyright and trademark and intellectual property. I just actually left Howard University Law School, where this is Fashion Law Week right now and there are so many students that are interested in this because they do have a passion for fashion and the law as well and want to find a way to combine it.

MARTIN: Now, we're focusing a lot on women and the kind of restricted way in which they are encouraged to present themselves, particularly in courtroom settings, but the same is true of men, isn't it?

ELAM: Men are definite...

MARTIN: You know, boring blue suit, black or brown shoes. Don't be more interesting than the client...

ELAM: I agree.

MARTIN: ...kind of thing.

ELAM: And that is a real consideration. Now, I attended one of the Fordham Law School Fashion Institutes and there were several men there, and there you would notice maybe a pastel shirt, interesting socks, so I think the men are also trying to find ways to infuse their outfits with a fashion sense.

MARTIN: But more broadly, though, and I have to confess that, you know, we find this here, that when we talk about fashion as a serious subject, sometimes we get, you know, pushback from people who feel that it's kind of not worthy of serious discussion. But do you envision where you can have a conversation about fashion related to the law and not have people kind of roll their eyes?

ELAM: Well, I think once we start talking about what some of the issues are - I mean, right now there are some employment issues that fashion lawyers are dealing with with models. When you're dealing with copyright issues, people know that there are knockoffs all over the place and for a designer this can be very disturbing because there's not really any protection right now. So a fashion designer can spend, you know, many hours of creative energy and then turn around and find someone else has copied it for a much cheaper price and they're selling it. So I think those things can make people see, OK, yes, there is some seriousness to this.

MARTIN: Your piece is titled "Jurist Prudence: Can Women Be Fashionable Dressers and Lawyers?" So what's the answer, Tricia Elam?

ELAM: The answer is absolutely.

MARTIN: Tricia Elam is a writer and professor at Howard University. The piece for the Washington Post magazine, as we've said, is titled "Jurist Prudence: Can Women Be Fashionable Dressers and Lawyers?" She also talks about the growing field of fashion law and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio looking fabulous.

Thank you so much, Tricia Elam.

ELAM: Thank you so much.

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