Law in Contemporary Society
Farayi, I found your paper very interesting. I have placed my re-write above and your original below. I thought your essay could have benefited from more organization and more in-depth exploration of the connection between Veblen's theories and the development of a casual dress culture in law firms. I tried to address these issues in my re-write. Also, I did not find the gender politics of casual dress as interesting as you did, so I limited my discussion to the broader purposes of upper-class dress as Veblen sees them. If you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns, please let me know. -Sam

Veblen and the New Firm Culture of Casual Dress

-- By SamHershey - 23 Apr 2010


In Chapter 7 of The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explores the ways in which the upper-class uses clothing to project an image of idle dominance. Although fashions have significantly changed since the time of Veblen’s writing—indeed, he predicts that fashions must constantly change for high-end clothing to retain its aura of wastefulness—Veblen’s central point remains constant: “Our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observes at the first glance.” Law firms serve as an excellent example of the ways in which clothing comes to convey deeper significance; the very phrase “white shoe law firm” glibly deploys dress-code to illustrate an entire firm culture. In recent years, however, law firms have famously undergone a shift in dress more fundamental than a simple passing of fashions: they have slackened their once-strict dress codes to new casual standards. While on the surface this shift may seem to undermine Veblen’s arguments about the cultural purposes of high-end fashion, Veblen’s theories actually anticipate and illuminate the reasons for this new trend.

Veblen's Explanation for the Shift to the Casual in Dress

The History of Casualization

Veblen’s explanation for the downgrade in law-firm fashion standards comes, oddly, from his discussion of the corset. Veblen sees the corset as the exemplification of the underlying message of all upper-class women’s fashion: the woman’s inability—and by implication, lack of necessity—to perform any manual labor. Like high heels and long dresses, corsets visibly incapacitate the woman, leaving her incapable of performing any menial function. The uselessness of the woman thus redounds to the credit of her husband, who, by still further implication, must be capable of providing so abundantly that she need not bother. The most important point about the corset particularly is that it could only serve its purpose when it was of limited availability. As Veblen writes, “The corset was, until within a generation or two, nearly indispensable to a socially blameless standing for all women…[t]his rule held so long as there still was no large class of people wealthy enough to be above the imputation of any necessity for manual labor…But now there has grown up a large enough leisure class…[so that] the corset has therefore in large measure fallen into disuse.” In other words, once the leisure class grows large enough, the need to distinguish oneself by proving one’s idleness slackens.

Law Firms and Corsets

Such is the case with modern law firms. As the number of lawyers and law firms expands, the fancy dress becomes less exclusive and thus less essential to the firm’s image. The clothing loses its edge as a manifestation of wasteful dominance, and what remains is something hot and uncomfortable. It is therefore no surprise that the first article to be jettisoned in the movement toward casualness is the one that men find most uncomfortable: the tie. Veblen makes this point in the context of his era’s disappearance of powdered wigs and gold lace: “There has been a tendency perceptible, in the development of men’s dress especially, to discontinue…symbols of leisure which must have been irksome.” The suit and tie are just such “supererogatory symbols of leisure” to law firms today. Their exclusivity has waned, and thus so has their vitality.

The Old Rules Still Apply: Casual Dress ≠ Cheap Dress

New Clothes, New Purposes

Nevertheless, as FindLaw? 's article “Business Casual Attire for Lawyers” demonstrates, law firms’ new, casual dress codes still attempt to project the image of upper-class dominance. Veblen asserts that once upper-class clothing becomes casual, its goal transforms from publicizing wealth to transmitting fainter signals to those who can perceive the “subtler signs of expenditure.” The ultimate result of this shift is that “‘loud’ dress becomes offensive to people of taste, as evincing an undue desire to reach and impress the untrained sensibilities of the vulgar.” It is therefore no surprise that FindLaw? specifically instructs lawyers to stick to “conservative,” i.e. dark and muted, colors. Women receive the additional admonishment that large and flashy jewelry is to be avoided. Once the legal community has toned down its garb, displaying any luxurious flair becomes try-hard and déclassé.

New Clothes, Old Purposes

Most importantly, “casual” dress does not mean “cheap.” As Veblen asserts, cheapness is always anathema to the upper-class, for “we find things beautiful, as well as serviceable, somewhat in proportion as they are costly.” As the FindLaw? article notes, casual dress is no excuse to skimp: “Polos are the safe choice” for short-sleeve menswear, and clothing should still be “tailored” to fit nicely. Casual clothing thus loses none of its exclusivity or conspicuous wastefulness; it just mutes its message to target a narrower audience. Members of the upper-class are no longer in competition with society at large; they are in competition with each other. It is this subtler competition that now plays out in law firms, as Veblen predicted it ultimately must.

-- By FarayiMafoti - 17 Apr 2010

In Thorstein Veblen's piece Theory of the Leisure Class he argues how principles of pecuniary repute find expression in dress. Specifically, he contends that “in the common run of cases the conscious motive of the wearer or purchaser of conspicuously wasteful apparel is the need of conforming to established usage, and of living up to the accredited standard of taste” (Ch. 7). For most women, he explains, the coveting of decency is given expression through debilitating garb. The corset, the bonnet, and the high heel are mechanically impairing, making “even the simplest and most necessary manual work extremely difficult.” The effect of this general disregard for comfort is that, in theory, it reinforces Victorian classifications regarding women’s economic dependency. In this essay, I will apply this characterization of feminine sartorial display to an article I unearthed at FindLaw? entitled “Business Casual Attire for Lawyers,” which addresses legal “business casual” rules for men and women in white-shoe firms.

With the advent of companies allowing employees to wear jeans to work, law firms also began to institute a business casual initiative, presumably to increase employee comfort and, as the article suggests, make attorneys “able to fit in with clients.” The article makes three demarcations – upper body, lower body, and accessories – and then posits rules of fashion governing each part. For example, for the upper body category, men are authorized to come to work tie-less, brandishing a short-sleeve shirt or polo while women are admonished that too-tight items are highly unprofessional and likely to damage credibility. Likewise, for the lower body category, men may wear dressy khakis and dockers while women must either wear skirts that offer full coverage when seated or pants (with the slit of the skirt being cut only insofar as it permits walking or climbing stairs).

Upon reviewing these rules, it became clear that the same gendered ideologies that Veblen discussed were being discursively represented in the male garment but not so much in the female one. Veblen writes that uncomfortable or disabling garments worn by men are an indication of weakness. Nowhere is this principle better expressed than in the more leisurely ambience of a casual Friday. The short sleeves, the lack of a tie and the khakis all promote movement, an indication of vitality and a capacity to participate in predatory exploit, an activity that Veblen classifies as being intrinsic to masculinity (or at least that is the dominant spirituality). For the women, however, the emphasis seems to be more on diminished sexuality, rather than immobility. In other words, while the fear in Veblen’s view of advanced societies was the implication that a woman’s garb could be suggestive of productive employment, the fear here is overt sexuality.

In Veblen’s modern society, the “homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence their master’s ability to pay” (Ch. 7). In this case, the status of economic dependent is already being undermined by the mere presence of women at the firm and so the ideologies that inform her attire are reconstituted. The skirts and pants are inhibiting but the reason for this is not the maintenance of the appearance of indolence. Rather, the project is to mute female sexuality as much as possible in the ostensible interest of professionalism. In describing corsets, Veblen asserts that it “impairs the personal attractions of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman's apparel resolves itself, in point of substantial fact, into the more effective hindrance to useful exertion offered by the garments peculiar to women.” The impairing of “personal attraction” is viewed as a loss in Veblen’s characterization. While Veblen skirts the issue of women as sexual objects, he clearly sees their importance as objects of display. Small hands and feet, a narrow waist, etc are posited as “faults of structure” and so it is preferred that they are emphasized in a woman’s garment. After all, these “weaknesses” are extolled because they further evince the impracticality of women engaging in productive labor. Here, on the other hand, the concealment of female affectations is seemingly given patriarchal approval.

As Veblen writes, as functions change, so do ideals of feminine beauty. The reason for the reconstitution here could be the complete erosion of femininity in vogue at the law firm. Since the project of precluding women from the predatory exploit is all but lost, the next alternative is to masculinize their appearance under the guise of professionalism and decency in order to make their inclusion in the “hunt” appear less unnatural. Moreover, the patriarchal project is just as effective here as it was in Veblen’s book because the same spiritual imperative is at work: decency. The need to appear decent is a motivator in both instances and so it ensures a level of self-regulation.


Webs Webs

r4 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:23 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM