Elena Kagan's Absence of Style

This headline from Gawker made me laugh out loud.

Since Solicitor General Elena Kagan was nominated to be the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the political world has been abuzz with discussions about her sense of style.  Washington Post commentator Robin Givah referred to Kagan’s sartorial selections as “offensive” and “drab” before declaring that no Supreme Court nominee in recent memory has possessed anything resembling style.

Frankly, I agree with Givhan that Kagan’s attire reflects more of an absence of style than a sense of style.  Her daily uniform of black separates worn with either a colored or a textured jacket is positively snore worthy.  Her clothing is boxy, untailored and less than flattering.  In essence, Elena Kagan is everything that is wrong with the Washington, D.C. dress code.

But does it matter?

I certainly don’t think that her confirmation should or would hinge on her poorly edited wardrobe, but I do think that her clothing choices illustrate how opinions about professional style are changing.  The boxy suits, square-toed shoes, princess seamed blouses and sheer nylons of yesteryear are now considered painfully dated.  But when Elena Kagan and SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor were coming up through the ranks, women who wanted to break into the professional boys club shelved their femininity in the hopes that their intelligence and hard work would shine through their crepe suits.  In other words, they murdered pretty to save smart.

Women of my generation are now demanding the right to dress with femininity in the workplace.  I wear form fitting dresses, ruffled blouses, brightly-colored pumps and tailored suits with pretty details all the time.  I almost never wear pants, and there isn’t one boxy jacket/skirt/dress in my closet.  This is the evolution of style for professional women with jobs of substance; you can be pretty/stylish and smart/respected.  As Johanna Cox used to say, “A serious job is no excuse,” to dress like a Dominican Nun on a day pass from the convent.

I hope that this blog and others have made some difference in the way professional women are dressing.  Hopefully, in twenty years, there will be a female SCOTUS nominee who loves Vivienne Westwood or Ports 1961 and our long national nightmare will be over.  To one day have a female justice whose sense of style consists of more than just the doily on her judge’s robe would be a small victory for professional women everywhere.

P.S. I would also appreciate it if Ms. Kagan could learn how to sit like a lady


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  1. Shannon says:

    I’m all for bringing pretty back into the workplace, but the flap about Kagan’s wardrobe is downright demeaning, not to mention contradictory. She had to shelve her femininity to succeed, and now that’s she’s very successful, she’s being slammed for being frumpy and not having children (in other words, she’s getting trashed for not being feminine enough). She just can’t win! As long as she’s dressed appropriately for the job, who cares?

    May 25, 2010/Reply
  2. e says:

    Ummm, I don’t think “wanting to break into the professional boys club” is the reason Elena Kagan “shelved her femininity.” I think we all know the reason for her fashion…and it’s also the reason she doesn’t sit like a lady. And plays softball. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    May 25, 2010/Reply
  3. wow says:

    Way to play into lame gender/gay stereotypes. I know plenty of frumpy straight women and well-dressed straight men. What I take issue with is this- we rarely see, nor should we, critiques of the clothing choices of powerful men. Contributing to a conversation about whether Kagan “sits like a lady” or dresses like one hurts all women. I love to dress up and take pride in my wardrobe, but it doesn’t make me more of a woman than Kagan is. Her job will be to be a fair and impartial jurist. She doesn’t work in fashion, she’s not a celebrity, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying fashion doesn’t matter, period, I’m just saying that it doesn’t matter in the context of this particular woman, and shouldn’t.

    May 25, 2010/Reply
  4. annie says:

    uh, “they murdered pretty to save smart” is not necessarily true. not everyone makes a conscious decision about their style – many simply pick things that are appropriate and just don’t care whether they’re fashionable or not. claiming some femme-nazi reasoning for why SCOTUS nominees dress as they do is a bit far-fetched. they might just not care.

    imagine that.

    May 25, 2010/Reply
  5. Catg says:

    Interestingly about the “sit like a lady” thing, I’ve read those body-language studies which suggest that the practice of sitting with one’s legs splayed is (for men) a social signifier of status or dominance. Authority in other words. I don’t think we need to get into Feminist/Patriarchy theory 101 here to discuss the many possible reasons why women are encouraged to do the opposite, but I do now take greater notice when someone points it out, that a woman isn’t sitting “correctly”. Although, given she’s wearing a skirt in that picture…yeeeeaaaaah. I do agree with your ‘murdered pretty to save smart.’ comment, don’t think it’s a “feminazi” thing at all, and share your hope for a more well dressed future for women in business and politics ­čśë

    May 25, 2010/Reply
  6. just a lawyer says:

    Female lawyers are expected to shelve a lot of femininity in many situations (in the courtroom, going through SCOTUS hearings, etc.). Because of the decorum of the profession, male dominance in the legal world, and biases of jury members and clients, we have a much stricter dress code when we’re representing someone. The purpose is to keep people focused on what we say and not fixating on why we are or aren’t wearing something. Of course you want clothes that fit and are modern, but you have to err on the side of being extremely conservative. This means we still have to wear panty hose in interviews and in court. People always fight it, but it’s just not going to change. It just comes with the territory, it sucks, and we live with it. Just wanted to provide a little insight into frumpy lawyer syndrome!

    May 26, 2010/Reply
  7. Belle says:

    E-I don’t know that her sexuality is the issue. It’s more her age and her profession than anything, I would say.

    Annie-I know some people don’t care, and I still find it mind boggling. But what I often find (not always, but often) is that once someone has made them over to be just a touch more glamorous, they start to care. But if you honestly don’t care, I’m not going to force you.

    Lawyer-I get it, and I would err on the side o conservative in court (as I do in hearings). But I don’t think it’s zero sum. You can get a conservative suit in a good color that’s well tailored and look much better.

    And like I said in the post, it has no effect on her as a jurist but I just think a little hair color, a tailor and a royal blue suit would go a long way. I’m certainly not trying to turn her into Barbie.

    May 26, 2010/Reply
  8. A says:

    I would add that for women of a larger size (that being anything more than a 10), the supply of feminine business clothing is lacking. Yes, tailoring can remedy some of the generic boxy suits that fill the racks of the “women’s dept.”, but it would be nice to get some recommendations for designers that can suit (pun intended) those of us who are more “average” in size……the avg. of the American woman being 5′ 5″ and a size 14.

    May 26, 2010/Reply
  9. Bonnie says:

    I disagree with lawyer about appropriate court clothing. I refuse to wear nylons, even for trial. I really don’t think a jury is going to convict or acquit because of my decision. I do dress fairly conservatively for trial but my suits are always fitted and I always add a pop of color whether in a shell or necklace. Conservative does not have to be frumpy. In fact, I strongly believe that if you’re dressed well, you carry yourself with more confidence and that it something that a jury will notice.

    May 26, 2010/Reply
  10. D says:

    Belle, did you see this?

    May 26, 2010/Reply