In the early 1980s, I landed a job at a two-partner law firm in Washington. I was the only female associate. A lover of fashion, I one day selected a cream-colored pantsuit with a cinched waist jacket for a small-claims-court appearance.
Very Greta Garbo, I thought.
My boss, a man, thought differently. “You can’t wear pants to court! What the [expletive] were you thinking this morning?”
What’s wrong with wearing a pantsuit? I asked.
“Judges don’t like it,” he chided. “That’s just the way it is.”
A reluctant conformist, I soon left for a position with a more laid-back legal services organization where my new boss, also a man, occasionally rocked a plaid or colored shirt, and mynew female colleagues often wore pants. I rarely appeared in court, so I decided I could be more creative in my styling. I went too far, though, when, inspired by Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” I began to wear rhinestone jewelry, leather skirts and lace.
At my year-end evaluation, my boss looked me in the eye before he read: “Overall, a good attorney, but she doesn’t dress like one.”
What had I gotten myself into? I was five years out of law school and already contemplating early retirement.
The law was my chosen field, but I chose it for the wrong reasons.
Months before graduating from a private high school in Boston, I had announced to my parents that I wouldn’t be attending college. Instead, I would live a committed, creative life free from elitist strictures.
I found a secretarial job to pay the bills but quickly grew bored with the routine. I also realized it wasn’t going to support my shopping habit. So, I went off to college after all, arriving at the Garden City campus of Adelphi University wearing a purple quilted Betsey Johnson jacket with faux fur sleeves reminiscent, some said, of those scary monkeys in the “The Wiz.”
My writing was just as inventive, but with my senior year suddenly upon me, I had no clue about how I’d make a living with it. I decided to try law school, instead. At least my father, one of Boston’s first black judges, would be happy.
In law school, I dressed according to my daily moods: vintage, bohemian and Afrocentric styles mixed with consignment-store treasures. I was all about bell-bottoms and huge Afros. Sometimes, I sewed my own clothes, based on album covers, such as those by Prince, Grace Jones, Sly & the Family Stone and Tina Turner. In my naivete, I imagined a legal career that would allow for my fashion flourishes.
Then, reality set in. Suffering through a string of legal jobs, I finally accepted what had become so abundantly clear: There was no being me and being a lawyer.
In 1991, I decided to return to school for a master’s degree in creative writing. Six years later, with my degree, a second husband, two children and a third on the way, I began publishing short stories, essays and, ultimately, a novel. Later, I began teaching writing full time at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and, in 2008, at Howard University — a total now of almost 14 years.
The pay has been notably less, but there have been benefits. Finally, in my professional life, I can wear whatever I want. I can freely indulge my penchant for leopard print, as well as my admiration for the versatility of the shoe boot.
But by 2000, in the dusk of a second divorce, and with college tuition for my children looming, I began thinking of returning to the law.
Still, I had to ask myself: Was I prepared for business suits and perfunctory pumps? Or was there a place where I could be myself?
I met April Reddickin 2008 when I invited myself to join her trip to Hong Kong Fashion Week with 20 of her Howard fashion merchandising students. April is a formidable designer whose fashions have been featured in Modern Bride and worn by Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. She graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1990 and has been trying to reconcile her creative urges within the legal field since.
“I really want to teach and practice fashion law,” she told me.
Fashion and law? Aren’t those terms oxymoronic? I wondered.
Then I noticed that one of the blogs I follow (Simone Butterfly’s YooHooDarling!) often posts about fashion-related legal issues, such as counterfeit stings, and designer knockoff stories. I decided to investigate the blogger.
Turns out “Simone” is Mariessa Terrell, a Washington fashion lawyer specializing in intellectual property matters. Her legal fashion role model was her mom, retired D.C. judge Mary Terrell, who fondly refers to herself as a “hat person.”
“Hats make me feel like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — I can change my mood or attitude,” Mary Terrell said. As a U.S. attorney, she would wear a hat to court, take it off, handle her cases, then put it back on. After she was appointed to D.C. Superior Court in 1997, she’d removed her hat before she went on the bench. Today, she said, “I have over 200 hats and my own hat room.
“I never let anyone set the style for me,” Terrell added. “I pick a hat first and then decide what goes with the hat.”
Besides the obvious fashion influences, the fact that her mother was a lawyer and a judge “kept me from being intimidated by the law,” said Mariessa, who attended Howard University Law School. “I thought, ‘I can mold the law to fit me.’ ”
I was struck by her decision to take charge of her own legal career. I hadn’t done that. She asked me if I wanted to come to a fashion law symposium at Howard.
Are Christian Louboutin soles red? I wanted to shout.
I sat transfixed by what I had initially thought oxymoronic. Fashionable female lawyers. A whole panel of them.
Mariessa, the moderator, wore a fitted bespoke navy suit with sparkling ankle-strapped heels that a modern-day Dorothy, of “Wiz” fame, might have chosen. Business attire, but certainly not business as usual.
She had told me earlier that she found law school to be difficult until her third year, when she enjoyed her trademark and copyright classes because they “felt creative.”
After law school, Mariessa clerked for a female D.C. Superior Court probate judge and took dressing cues from her. “But I resented that I had to conform to a certain look.” Post clerkship, she worked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where she was assigned to a department that dealt with fashion goods — “nirvana.” Mariessa never intended to be a litigator, and part of that was a sartorial choice. So, her casual government office was a place for Mariessa to shine fashion-wise. She knew, however, to dress more conservatively when it was time to meet clients.
“That is the key to being able to dress stylishly as an attorney,” she said. “You must know when it’s possible, and when it’s not.”
Another panelist, Michelle Mitchell, a lawyer at the International Trade Association, blew me away with her legal knowledge as well as her six-inch red patent leather heels and floral dress. Kristina Moranaro, a master’s candidate at George Washington University Law School, was dressed more conservatively, yet showed her fashion flair with a bold brooch and bling-worthy cocktail ring.
During Kristina’s first year at Vanderbilt University Law School, she had read about counterfeit goods in Harper’s Bazaar and was drawn to a quote from Gucci’s general counsel. She relentlessly hounded him until he agreed to take her on as an intern. Since then, she has worked for both Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. Kristina assisted with anti-counterfeit police raids in New York’s Chinatown, crafted “cease and desist” letters, monitored the Internet for counterfeit items and reviewed contracts.
Dress codes are still in place for female lawyers. “For job interviews, they tell us to wear gray suits, demure shoes, little jewelry and pantyhose,” Kristina said.
Indeed, as recently as 2008, at a Chicago bar association event, female lawyers were admonished to wear suits that are “not too fitted,” “flat shoes,” “minimal jewelry, minimal makeup, pantyhose.”
Fashion law, I discovered, gained traction about five years ago, when designers such as Diane von Furstenberg began pushing Congress for more intellectual property protections. The Fashion Institute of Technology and Fordham University established courses exploring the legal concerns of the fashion industry, including intellectual property (copyright and trademark law), business transactions, textiles, merchandising, employment and labor concerns, and import/export issues.
Why did it take so long?
Guillermo Jimenez, an international trade lawyer and Fashion Institute professor, said the law “in general is dominated by men, and fashion seems frivolous to most.”
“With the proportion of women in law school rising ... the legal industry has to be more receptive to the interests of women,” said Jimenez, who, with Barbara Kolsun, edited the “fashion law bible,” “Fashion Law: A Guide for Designers, Fashion Executives, and Attorneys.” The fashion industry, Jimenez added, “is twice as large as both sports and entertainment added together,” and both spawned legal specialties first.
Later, I contacted Susan Scafidi, who taught one of the first courses on fashion law in the country. She is now the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University Law School in New York, the first and only of its kind in the country, as well as keeper of the blog Counterfeit Chic.
While teaching intellectual property, Scafidi harbored concerns about the lack of protection for design. Music and movies have copyright protections, so why not fashion? As an associate professor, she wanted to write about this discrepancy in the law but was discouraged by senior colleagues who deemed it “too girly, too frivolous.”
Scafidi wrote instead about more respected legal topics and received tenure before maneuvering her way back to fashion. It helped that the dean of Fordham Law School had a wife who had spent her career working for Saks Fifth Avenue. The Fashion Law Institute was founded in fall 2010 with the help of Von Furstenberg and the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“There has been a tremendous outpouring” of people interested in the services as well as attaining the knowledge to practice this legal specialty, Scafidi said. Course offerings include fashion ethics, finance, real estate, trade regulation, sustainability, as well as civil rights issues (such as banning the burqa).
The fashion world “needs legal teams with specialized expertise,” Jimenez said. “No one knows everything about this area of the law. If you work for an apparel importer, you need a deep knowledge of customs law. If you work for a chain like the Gap, you need to be an expert in franchise law. If you work for Victoria’s Secret, you’d be wise to have a sub-specialty in fragrance law.”
I started exploring articles about fashion law until my eyes stung. After reading one about counterfeit protection by Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law school professor, I called her. Suk believes the field of fashion law will become more developed at Harvard, particularly if Congress passes a bill being pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to grant copyright protection to fashion design.
My own inner revolution continues, but I’m refusing to squeeze myself into one shoe box. Instead, I write and teach, as well as attend legal seminars and courses. I have been invited to participate in Howard Law’s 2012 Fashion Law Week and hope to enroll in Fordham’s summer fashion law boot camp. I don’t trouble my mind about the lateness of the hour career-wise or the grayness of my hair.
The new scene I envision for my life’s possibilities goes like this: I am in court before a judge who compliments my peplum pantsuit. I represent an up-and-coming designer whose spectacularly ruched handbags have been pirated. I sigh in satisfaction, because finally I can have my law degree and my leopard print, too.
Writer and lawyer Tricia Elam teaches at Howard University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.