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Wednesday Live: Lawyers, Fashion and Film

For this April’s Wednesday Live Breakfast Club we were joined by Joana Ganero-Sanchez (Founder and Director of Tristana Media), who came to discuss the portrayal of lawyers on the silver screen and the psychology behind how they are dressed. Joana is uniquely qualified to make such an analysis, as she graduated with a law degree and is now a highly respected figure in the world of fashion and film; she is about to launch ‘Icons in Style’ in media partnership with Vanity Fair – a Fashion and Cinema Film Series, hosted by Michael Kors.

Joana began by explaining the origins of fashion existing as a key facet of cinematography, with Coco Chanel pioneering the design of high end costume to build a character and depict a certain message in film. Indeed, until an actor or actress wears their character’s clothes, they do not feel completely attuned to the role. Taking on a new persona through wearing particular clothes has become a ceremonious act in the process of getting into character.

So, how do designers style lawyers in film in order to express the authoritative stereotype which most people associate with them? The archetypal idea of a lawyer is precise: they will be perfectly groomed, with men wearing an impeccable suit and women dressed just as sharply, with the addition of high heels. One of the earliest depictions of lawyers in film came in Adam’s Rib, a 1950 classic in which Katherine Hepburn plays a female lawyer (it is worth nothing that this concept would not necessarily be a familiar one to many film-goers). Hepburn dresses in a strong, masculine way, preferring dark tones to give a sense of authority. Similarly, in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder James Stewart’s sober and dark suits portray the somber and serious nature of his fight for justice. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the lawyers dress in a way which epitomises dignity, well-groomed in their suit, tie and vest – the only difference from other, more stereotypical depictions is the lighter colours of their suits, which evoke a sense of the oppressive heat which permeates the courtrooms of the Deep South.

The traditional sense of propriety carried through the dress of lawyers has stayed fairly consistent through the decades, with films such as 1993’s Philadelphia and 2001’s I Am Sam seeing Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and Michelle Pfeifer respectively dressing immaculately in order to convey a sense of authority. However, there are some key exceptions to the archetypal portrayal. My Cousin Vinny sees an unconventional, inexperienced lawyer from Brooklyn, New York take on the case of a family member accused of murder. He dresses in a particularly non-conventional manner, choosing to wear leather jackets in the courthouse, and in fact the judge has to remind him to dress more appropriately. Consequently, we see an evolution of the lawyer’s style, although he continues to push the boundaries with flamboyant suits and ties. Similarly, Julia Roberts’ eponymous character in Erin Brokovich dresses in an unconventional manner to reflect her unconventional style of paralegaling.

And, in what is perhaps the most famous example of a film in which a lawyer’s individual dress reflects their unique personality, Reece Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde is the ultimate exception to the rule. Her famed love of pink, extremely feminine clothes seems to be at odds with her determination to succeed at Harvard Law School. As the film progresses her style becomes more severe and serious, but there is always an element of pink in her clothing – here, Hollywood is celebrating a conformity to stereotype, but with a slight difference.

By Kitty

Kitty joined Obelisk Support as an intern to work on the First 100 Years project. She graduated with a classics degree from University College London and now manages resourcing and works on engagement with the Obelisk Lawyer community.