Obelisk In Action

What’s In A Portrait

Paul explained that, although he defines himself broadly as an artist, the term ‘artist’ is a vague one which can be open to interpretation, whereas describing oneself as a ‘portrait painter’ seems to forge an instant connection with the listener, and likewise, to him, painting portraits has always been the subject that feels like ‘home’ to him. There is a certain sense of familiarity and understanding around the concept of a portrait, and it’s an art form that’s widely accessible. It requires some reflection, then, to think about what exactly defines a portrait, and how its essence can be explained through one commonality.

One question posed by such reflection is whether or not an image of anything other than a person can be defined as a portrait? Is it possible to anthropomorphise objects, such as plants, and lend them personality such that they seem to exude the same quality of experience of a portrait? Whether they can truly be defined as a portrait in the traditional sense is questionable. Equally, in paintings where human are depicted, but their face isn’t showing, the picture again seems to lack some quality which we would typically attribute to a portrait. By looking at such paintings, which often carry a more detached and decorative feel than the personal and private one of an archetypal portrait, we feel voyeuristic, and the engagement between subject and audience is clearly one-sided.

Another interesting idea is the depiction of a ‘portrait’ of an individual through a collection of meaningful objects which they have curated. This builds the sense of character and personhood in a way that traditional portraits cannot, although somehow this doesn’t feel quite as satisfactory – maybe because the audience can’t infer their own ideas about the person quite as subjectively by looking at a group of inanimate objects.

Perhaps, then, what is key to defining a portrait is the depiction of a human face. The art needs to engage with the audience in such a way that a mutual connection has been forged: the subject knows they are being painted for the consumption of the audience, and the painter makes this clear in their depiction of the subject, conveying a sense of shared knowledge between all three parties. In this sense, then, the eyes are key.

Paul ended the talk by discussing why he enjoys painting portraits, and what there is to be gained from doing so. As he puts it himself, painting portraits allows him to look at people and things carefully, and more than other people often have time for. He says ‘Painting gives you a considered and meditative perspective, a private, personal faith in the universal special quality of being human.”

Link to website


Social Morality, The Law and Women’s Rights in India

Throughout the centuries, there have been fluctuating levels of social taboo surrounding female public performance in India. The most recent inflammation of such taboo came in the 1990s, when the prevalence of live Hindi dance mushroomed, mainly as a result of the increased money that the government could earn from issuing alcohol licenses. Consequently, this increased the notoriety of such practices, resulting in turn in a full ban on women dancing in bars (this being despite the fact that the dancers were always fully clothed, and audience members not permitted to touch them).

There are two main reasons why the law intervened to ban public dancing. Firstly, many declared it to be a social evil, wrecking society and leading its innocent men astray. Secondly, a more well-meaning school of thought wanted to save these women who had fallen victim to the practice of performing for money.

The problem, though, was how else would they get their money? 75,000 bar girls in Mumbai lost their livelihood, and were forced into earning a living in far more sexualised industries. These women were from a long lineage of courtesans, possessing no other skills and unable to transfer into another career path. They had no men to rely on for support, since women being dancers and women being married were two mutually exclusive notions. In this sense, the situation of these women was framed by the patriarchy within which they lived, but simultaneously they had been able to subvert it, earning money (often more than male peers) and gaining unprecedented independence.

This recent set of circumstances echoed those brought about by earlier social reforms in India, reflecting the Victorian morality of the colonising English. Some of these reforms triggered social advancement for females – the abolition of the practice of women self-immolating on their husband’s funeral pyre is one such trend which became extinct. However, the status of courtesans became called into question for the first time. Under colonialism, courtesans were no longer viewed as performers, and common morality decided that these women were immoral – simply for dancing and singing in public. Again, there were two sides to this campaign, as demonstrated by literature used to promote it at the time – simultaneously, belief was popular that ‘Hell is in her eyes’, ‘her smile is in India’s death’, but so too that ‘girls were trained to live an immoral life’ and this was a ‘violation of their human rights’.

This time, though, there was no need for a law, as stigmatisation occurred through social movement. What had once been a key cultural aspect of India’s society suddenly had no place. But, as when history repeated itself many years later, the courtesan lineage did not cease to exist, and instead the tradition went underground, meaning women were more exploited, had less prestige and were inevitably more sexualised. Consequently, the menfolk of this lineage also had little to do. The aim to purify society and save women from being courtesans proved to be completely counterproductive.

And so, this process was entirely repeated when the law decided in the 1990s to ban the practice once more. The key difference this time, though, was that, although the majority of middle class Indians agreed with the law, there was a strong voice who were able and willing to argue in favour of the performers. A union was formed with 8000 members, who argued that the practice gave women a valuable livelihood, and the opportunity to educate their children, thus propelling social mobility on an unprecedented scale.

Just last week, the ban against women performing in bars was overturned, with the caveat that the practice must be regulated. This echoes the huge societal change which has seen Bollywood becoming an enormously popular art form, thus making it difficult to argue that public performance is undignified. This is a powerful message, and calls into question the comparative gravitas carried by social morality versus legislation. A legal ban leaves itself open to scrutiny and question, which a strong argument with common backing can overturn, whereas social consensus does not afford such a platform to those at odds with it.

Something else to learn from this series of events is that the preoccupation with the victimhood of women often does little to actually help their cause, and in many cases can be a huge hindrance to female empowerment. In order to remove this barrier, perhaps it is time to accept that women, in all societies, ought to be afforded the autonomy to decide what is best for themselves, without intervention from the law or society – however well meaning.

Family & Work

The Rising Stock of Returning Mothers

In this new age where agile and flexible working practices are no longer perceived as a novelty, and where a culture of assessing individual input and output to calculate merit is – quite rightly – being valued above presenteeism, the time is ripe for those who need to work around other commitments to make their return to the workplace, with mothers being a prime demographic. A gap in your working history does not necessarily equate with the deterioration of your value. New parents learn new skills: how to juggle, how to negotiate, how to time manage. So why does the stock of mothers seem to devalue dramatically whilst they are on a career break?

The whole attitude towards returning mothers needs to be seriously reconsidered. Employers accept that having a diverse melee of experience, talents and skills within their workforce makes for an innovative environment. There is no scope for workplaces to evolve if employers do not embrace the differences of their employees: different experiences, different perspectives and different backgrounds. Surely, then, this should extend to mothers too – despite the fact that they might need to work in a slightly different way.

Part of the problem are the negative assumptions and sweeping generalisations made about returning mothers: that they are unambitious, that they only want to work part time, that they will be too slow to get to grips with the way technology has moved on. But this is simply not the case. Imagine any other group being discriminated against en masse in this manner. It simply would not, and could not, happen. For many returning mothers, though, it does: a 2012 study showed that women returning to work are very often forced to into accepting lower-paid, part-time jobs.

Some industries are taking steps towards improvement: returnership programs as first introduced by investment banks are slowly becoming more and more popular. And statistics show that more women are returning to work. Between 2011 and 2013, 200,000 mothers from two parent families with dependent children returned to work, compared to just 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. Equally, recent legislation has dictated that all parents of children under the age of 17 are entitled to request flexible working (but whether this request will be accepted is an entirely different matter – and, indeed, not legislated for). So, we are moving in the right direction, but evidently there is still much to do.

Women returning to work naturally feel daunted – but is this partly (and paradoxically) due to the fact that everything out there tells them that they ought to feel daunted? Most returnership programmes are aimed at reinstilling lost confidence and getting women up to speed with the necessary skills they need to return to work. But why can’t the emphasis shift, at least in part, to one which empowers mothers, and shows them how they can use their new found skills to improve upon their previous experience – bettering themselves, rather than hauling themselves back up to their previous level. Why do we treat women as though their stock has devalued or, at the very best, remained stagnant for the years they have been out of work? The fact is that women are returning to the workplace with more life experience, a fresh perspective and a whole host of newly acquired skills: if anything, their stock should has risen.

So, how can employers get better at accommodating the needs of returning women?

  • Hire them! Respect the decision of women to return to work (in many cases it’s not an easy one) and give them a chance to impress you.
  • Accept that all circumstances are different – don’t assume that all working mothers want the same thing. Part time work might be great for some, but others may want to return to work full time. Never make assumptions.
  • Think of flexible solutions. Do you really need this employee to do all of their work from the office, and in office hours?
  • Make sure that your IT system allows for remote and flexible women.
  • Lead by example. If you show a proactive attitude to employing returning mothers, and accommodating their needs, then your employees will follow suit in respecting their value.

By believing and investing in the skills of a returning mother, you will more than likely find yourself working with an exceptionally reliable, focused and motivated employee – and surely these qualities far outweigh those possessed by many employees who are able to (unproductively) keep their seat warm beyond office hours.

Obelisk In Action

Wednesday Live: Striking a Chord

For last month’s Wednesday Live Breakfast Club we were joined by Odaline ‘Chachi’ de la Martinez, the first woman to ever conduct at the BBC Proms. Chachi drew a comparison between the pyramid-like structure of many large corporations, and the shape of an orchestra. She also noted that successful female business owners tend to break this mould, favouring a ‘spider’s web’ structure. She left us wondering whether leaving behind the rigid pyramid in favour of a more innovative structure could be the key to success for orchestras and large corporations alike.

There are two different hierarchical models that businesses tend to take- one being a pyramid shape, with the CEO at the top and junior workers at the bottom, and the other taking more of a spider’s web form, with the CEO in the middle and the rest of the employees forming a supporting grid around them. Chachi informed us that this binary opposition is in fact often gendered, with female founded businesses favouring the spider’s web, whereas male-led companies tend to take a pyramid form.

 A pyramid:
• Has the director of the company at the top
• Has a sliding scale of power and influence from those at the top to those at the bottom
• Has more employees in lower ranking positions than in higher ranking positions
• Communication travels up and down the pyramid, usually without skipping a rung

A spider’s web:
• Has the director at the centre of the structure
• Lines of communication move between levels
• Has a more fluid structure
• Is less hierarchical

As far as industries go, the field of classical music has traditionally been one of the most fiercely-protected citadels of male prejudice and dominance. Reminding us of this, Chachi also showed us a diagram of an orchestra which, when turned upside down, bears an uncanny resemblance to a pyramid. In a way that is analogous to a typical, rank and file company, the conductor sits at the top of the pyramid, with the principals of the orchestra existing to facilitate and filter communication between conductor and musicians, passing instructions all the way back to the percussion section.

This system was implemented in order to optimise orchestral cohesion and harmony. Decisions such as concurrence on bowing- whether the strings are played upwards or downwards – and phrasing are dictated from the top by the principal violinists, and the concert master (the conductor’s number two) is responsible for the cumulative sound and the discipline of the orchestra.

Chachi pointed out the inefficiency of this system, which was founded decades ago upon the principles of practicality and excellence. In fact, working in this way only serves to foster a sense of detachment for those at the back of the orchestra from the conductor at the front – surely counterintuitive to productivity, and certainly not encouraging the sense of collaboration which is vital to the harmony of an orchestra. If nothing else, the Chinese whispers of questions being passed through principal players may be unnecessarily time-consuming, and create an anti-communicative environment.

An alternative approach, then, would be to consider the spider’s web structure favoured by female businesses. In creating an environment which is less linear, less military, less rank and file, and moving away from the strict hierarchy to something more innovative, there is scope to flourish. A more collaborative and communicative workplace is never a bad thing, and is often a necessity in the modern world. It is time for businesses and orchestras alike to adapt to modernity, and leave behind traditional and often out-dated structures, in order to maximise their success.

Obelisk In Action

Wednesday Live: Bring Out the Author in You

This morning we were joined by Diane Banks of Diane Banks Associates Literary & Talent Agency, who came to the Attic to help our clients discover their inner author, and to tell us how the literary industry is continuing to evolve in what is fast becoming a digital market. The audience was made up of a wide spectrum of guests, with members joining us from as far afield as RBS in Edinburgh, as well as some shorter commutes being made from the likes of Pearsons, G4S and BT.

The era of digitalism harks back to the oral culture of centuries gone by, where verbal transmittance was the only way of passing on lore and culture, and the current trend for video consumption is one which shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, the likes of Zoella – one of the most well-known and avidly-watched vloggers in the world – have segued into the writing industry. Zoella’s debut novel, Girl Online, sold a staggering amount of copies: more than 78,000 in the first week. Diane believes that authors need to respond to the fluidity of the market in a similar fashion, and boost their marketability and visibility by embracing a variety of media – for example, branching into blogging, vlogging and much more.

As one member of our audience pointed out, this creates a problem for authors wanting to write under a pseudonym, or anonymously. If you are unable to be the face of the ‘brand’ behind the author, then chances are you are less likely to pique the interest of your potential fans. The romanticism of an anonymous author shrouded in mystery and intrigue is long gone, and there is an anticipation that our public figures must maintain a sense of tangibility. Often, the more tangible the better (and this goes some way to explaining the popularity of autobiographies, tell-all memoirs – and reality television).

There is still some room for the quaint and traditional in the literary industry though. The difference now is that beautifully bound books have become novel (no pun intended) – the renewed appreciation for the physical form has led for certain books to become ‘up-spec’d’, from where they duly take their place as collector’s items, or even luxury items. Like vinyl records, these sorts of books can demand a much higher price than when their popularity (and supply) was in its pomp.

Diane was asked whether she feared for the future of the literary industry. Her answer was no. She does not fear for its future, and moreover is excited about its continuing evolution. Every sector needs to adapt to the new era in which we live, and the literary one is no exception. The way in which you choose to adapt and embrace the new, more agile and more fluid direction in which your industry is moving will dictate the success of you and your business. As ever, innovation is key.

Obelisk In Action

Wednesday Live: The Power of the Visual Message

For this week’s Wednesday Live, we had Gary Porter from Elemental Design in The Attic. With an enviable client list, Gary spoke to us about how he uses visual message and visual communication in designing shop windows and displays, and how he creates a world of fantasy and perfection behind a pane of glass. “A pane of glass is what separates a grubby road to a world of perfection” explained Porter.

Elemental Design comes in at the point where the customer and the brand meet. The store allows the customer to touch the brand in a way they cannot from adverts or online. The window is the silent salesperson that inspires, impacts and informs; it is like the cover of a magazine as you have very little time to grab the passer-by and get them inside the store, or buy the magazine. You need to make a big impression – quick. The key, it seems, is an emotional connection: “if you strip everything away from a brand, you are left with a story at its essence”. It is this story that Gary tells with his window campaigns.

One case study is the Cambridge Satchel Company, who wanted to create a cool, urban men’s boutique in their Covent Garden store. Gary achieved this in three short weeks pulling together mood-boards and colour schemes, taking inspiration from the library as an intellectual space with books, busts and “rhythm”. Gary scoured South London markets to collect knick-knacks for the space to draw people in, and created a dynamic store that told the story of the Cambridge Satchel Company through the intellectual, animated, library-like boutique.

A frequent request from the clients is an interactive experience, whether that is through social media or audience participation. A Viktor and Rolf experience space succeeded in the mission to drive social media interest through a beautiful floral space that sparked social media images going viral. In a store window display at Harrods, the Elemental team created a different type of interactive experience through high-tech. The brand was Zegna, who had the whole shop front of Harrods, and for one of the windows a computer model of one of their shoes was created by taking a picture of it from every angle. The model was then placed on an image bought by NASA, and infrared lasers were used to detect the movement of those who were in front of the window. The sensors would read the movement, and mirror this onto how the shoe moved in the window, creating an animated, innovative window space.

As you can imagine, to create these campaigns many qualities and skills are utilised in these multi-media spaces. To be a successful commercial artist, you must be a conglomerate of creative elements: part-graphic designer, part-stylist, part-curator, part-interior designer, part-story teller. The campaigns that Gary discussed oozed success and cool, but could the broad spectrum of skills needed to make these windows be brought into new sectors of business? Perhaps we should all take Gary’s lead and figure out how we can bring strengths from areas outside of our work into our own personal work.

After Gary’s talk, there was discussion about how his work in window displays could translate into big business. Is there space for the visuals of retail in the world of law? This returned us to the discussion of what happens if you strip everything away from a brand: you are left with a story. The story of a brand is the essence of a business, and using elements from Elemental Design, it could be suggested that emphasising a business’ story creates that emotional connection so quintessential to Gary’s work. The story of business told through the power of the visual message.

Family & Work Obelisk In Action

Obelisk launch new refresher courses

Reengaging talent which has been lost from the legal profession has long been top of the agenda for Obelisk Support. We have therefore created this Workshop, which is supported by the Women Lawyers Division of the Law Society in a unique partnership, in order to optimise the work readiness and confidence of our highly qualified and highly motivated talent pool.

Our Refresher Workshop will cover a range of topics hosted by guest speakers;

Dana Denis-Smith, founder and CEO of Obelisk Support, is an entrepreneur, former Linklaters lawyer and international journalist. She founded Obelisk to keep ex-City lawyers working flexibly, around their family or other personal commitments and to provide clients with an affordable and flexible quality legal support solution onshore. Dana is a multiple award winning business woman from “Best Strategic Leadership” Award at the Managing Partners Forum Awards for Management Excellence in 2014, to flexible work champion by the Timewise Foundation in their Power Part Time List of 50 leading business people in the UK. Obelisk was a Stand Out winner in the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards 2013. Dana was one of 10 European lawyers shortlisted in the Individual Legal Innovator category of the 2012 FT awards. In 2010 she was names as one of Management Today magazine’s “35 under 35” list of UK female high flyers. She is the founder of the First 100 Years project charting the journey of women in law over the last 100 years.

Rina Goldenberg Lynch, Founder and Managing Director of Voice At The Table offers 20 years of experience as a City lawyer and executive and brings with her the wealth of skills that a corporate career imparts.  In recent years, Rina has been working on diversity and inclusion matters, helping develop D&I strategy and initiatives.  Rina has also been coaching and mentoring women in the corporate, not-for-profit and entrepreneurial sectors with great success. She is an Accredited Associate Executive Coach, a qualified ILM Level 5 trainer, a speaker and innovator. 

Scott Jones is the founder of Footprint, the sustainable media and communications agency. He works with inspiring start-ups and some of the world’s largest brands telling business stories about innovation, sustainability and change. Footprint is a full service agency, from consultancy to production to activation – working across press, broadcast, video, print, social and live events. Before moving into media and communications five years ago, Scott was a Business journalist on national newspapers and a producer at the BBC – working in the Business and Consumer Unit making The Money Programme and Watchdog. 

Krisztina Ambrus decided to have a career change after working in luxury residential real estate in Central London. As fashion had always been her passion, starting a personal styling and image consultancy business seemed to be a straightforward choice. She trained at the London College of Fashion and her image consultancy training at First Impressions before setting up Imago Styling. 

Joanna Gaudoin is a personal and corporate image expert.  She helps Individual women and organisations work on their image and impact for professional success.  Experience and expertise will always be vital but how and what we communicate with others about ourselves and the perception they form of us are pivotal for success. These skills help us differentiate ourselves positively and build credibility for better professional relationships, whilst also enhancing our confidence.  Through her one-to-one programme with women and running corporate training, Joanna helps individuals work on their appearance, body language and communication to achieve their goals for their own career success and the success of their organisation. Prior to running her own company, Joanna worked in marketing and consultancy for almost ten years with blue-chip clients such as Mars, Diageo, Toshiba and SABMiller.

There will also be opportunities for returners to network with each other and the Obelisk Support team, as well as a drinks reception. We hope that it will be a fun and informing session – the focus will be on confidence, empowerment and bringing back to the surface the skills which our highly qualified Obelisk lawyers already possess.

Women in Law

To Foster Innovation, Embrace Diversity

For February’s Wednesday Live Breakfast Club we were joined by Rosemary Martin, General Counsel of Vodafone, for a hotly anticipated talk on Innovation and Diversity in the legal profession. A question that has been often asked is this: how is it possible to embrace innovation and diversity in a sector which has traditionally and resolutely been opposed to radical change? Rosemary addressed this issue, giving advice on how to disrupt an industry which seems to be fairly content to stay exactly how it is.

The legal profession, it must be said, is particularly troubled by diversity. As other industries are continually innovated, it seems that this is one sector which has been known to back-pedal furiously: indeed, in the early 21st century, the top of the profession was just as dominated by Caucasian, male, Oxbridge-educated as it always had been. Any change has been extremely slow. But now, the new, more diverse working generation wants to redefine the way we work.

Why has it been so difficult for the legal sector to innovate? In short, because change is only demanded by those who are unhappy with the status quo. And the law firm model is great for those who sit at the top of it. People are still willing to pay a premium for what is simply not the most efficient way of working. A curiosity for change and willingness to break the mould is something which has been drilled out of many lawyers.

So, what can inspire this difference in a reluctant-to-change sector?

  • Remember the power of law. Legislation makes for fast, immediate, effective change, as has been demonstrated by the new diversity laws in Norway.
  • Voluntary codes are also key. Take the Davies review, an independent inquest into Women on Boards. Despite some scepticism which greeted the review upon its inception, it looks likely that the target of 25% women on boards by 2025 will be reached.
  • Active initiatives within companies work well. Rosemary cited a ‘plus one’ scheme at Vodafone, whereby every time a new member of management was recruited, a woman would also have to be hired into the company. As she puts it, the effect of this was electrifying.
  • For women, it helps to have a personal target. From here, create your plan and execute it. It sounds simple, but just sticking to your goals (and your guns) gives great clarity.
  • Women in business need to stick together. Whether setting out targets from the top to filter down, or initiating change from the bottom up, solidarity is key. It’s also great for women to get together often, creating a support network for themselves.

For diversity to work, although it may be a bit clichéd, it’s so important to value the differences of your workforce. The ‘Lean In’ approach, as championed by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, is great in its support of women – but, in essence, it instructs women to behave more like men. Why should this be? Different cultures, genders and backgrounds lead to new ways of thinking. And this is where great ideas come from.

So, to generate innovation, you’ve got to embrace diversity. Support, recognise and cherish the differences in your workplace, and innovation will follow.

Women in Law

Friday Live: Dress for Success

Kitty and Julia prove if you want to get ahead, get a hat!

On the last Friday of March – a bright and sunny day (Spring has truly sprung) – we were joined by stylist Krisztina Ambrus from Imago Styling and hat makers Tamara Williams and Tania Fraser from the City Milliner for an afternoon of tips on how to style yourself for success, and how to find the right hat style for you: these women are on a mission to bring style – and hats – to the city.

Our visual appearance is more often than not what amounts to the first impression others have of us. Like it or not, people are generally more attracted towards, and feel more comfortable around, those who exude the best impression. The effort you make can be seen to reflect your value set, and often people can infer that the amount of effort you put in to your appearance will directly correlate with the amount of effort you put into other elements of your life, including your work. Not only is this a factor but moreover, when we dress well, we feel more confident. This, in turn, means that we will do a better job. Performance and psychology are inextricably linked, so giving yourself a boost in your mind will give you the edge in your day to day life.

Colour can also transmit a really powerful message. Just as in the animal kingdom, certain colours can tell our peers different things about our personality and our mood. Krisztina asked the room what personality traits they associate with different colours. Their answers were probably typical of most people. Red – powerful and assertive. Blue – cold and serene. Yellow – fun, quirky, happy. Black – serious, professional. Green – exotic. White – empathetic, corporate, approachable.

The psychology of colour extends to the uniforms we see worn in certain professions. The black and white of policemen exudes a sense of authority first and foremost, but equally demonstrates trustworthiness and approachability: so too, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Barack Obama, one of the most powerful people in the world, nearly always teams a very dark suit with a white shirt and a dark, coloured tie. The blue and black often favoured by banks, including Barclays, is designed to transmit an image of calm, composure and competence. One very interesting case that Krisztina shared with us was that of EasyJet staff. They noted that their air stewards, when wearing drab white and black uniforms, were often subjected to abuse by passengers – there did not seem to be a huge amount of respect for their staff. After consulting a psychologist, they decided to change their uniforms to the bright orange which is now synonymous with their brand. Since making the change, their crew are treated with much more respect, thanks to the authoritative yet approachable combination of orange, black and white.

Krisztina shared some of her best tips on how to dress for a corporate environment:

  • Tailoring is vitally important – 20% of your clothing budget should be allocated to this.
  • Navy, dark brown and charcoal are good alternatives to the traditional black when purchasing a suit (contrary to popular belief, black does not suit everyone).
  • Men can inject personality into their outfits with a pocket square, without compromising their professional image. The same can be said for brooches and scarves for women.
  • Bottle red, deep green, purple and plum are great staple colours for women – they all complement each other and are a great professional alternative to black.
  • The more senior you want to appear, the lighter the colour of your shirt should be. Fun pastels are fine for more junior members of the team.

We finished the session off by trying on some hats, having our heads measured and finding out exactly what hat style suits us. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and we would like to thank the ladies for injecting some style into our spring afternoon.

Obelisk In Action

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.